The ability to effectively influence decisions of government is a major challenge for small nonprofits as well as large organizations. However, there are specific steps which nonprofit organizations can take to improve their relationship with governments and their effectiveness in lobbying them.
Although we live in one of the most successful societies on the planet, there remain economic, social and political discrepancies between and among various dimensions of Canadian society. Ours is a profoundly competitive environment, both commercially and politically, and this is dramatically seen in the constant competition for the attention and resources bestowed by provincial and federal governments.
The ideas I present are not about the nuts and bolts of advocacy strategy development or lobbying tactics. Rather, they focus on concepts, approaches and mindsets which, I believe can be helpful to any organization in becoming a constructive and influential player in public-policy advocacy.
There are several important background considerations I’d like you to consider beforehand.
First, our political and public-policy environment is one where we have an overheated, ubiquitous ‘argument’ industry – increasingly sophisticated individuals in the media, academia, and interest groups – who are well-versed in policy and advocacy. This has important implications for those who are trying to make an argument; it is a crowded field!
Two, while our public service is one of the most respected, well-educated and (relatively) corruption-free in the world, it is also highly risk-averse and often overworked, in an environment where the demands for attention and resources far exceed the capacity to respond. The public service is also the target of an enormous number of representations – most of them not very well conceived, executed or articulated.
Thirdly, we live in a society where politics and government, in general, are held in low esteem. There is an increasing focus on the democratic deficit and the nature of participatory democracy.
Fourthly, government has to look at issues in particular ways; if you or your organization don’t understand this, you’ll probably end up talking only to yourselves!
And fifthly, a common complaint is that governments don’t listen. However interest groups often are not aware of their own need to listen, observe and think about what government is doing. Recognizing the legitimacy of elected government is key to our democratic system. Understanding their priorities is crucial to successful advocacy.
There are five typical reasons why organizations fail in their advocacy efforts, (or why bad things happen to good ideas):
- They ask the wrong people for the wrong thing at the wrong time;
- They ignore the realities of government and political decision-making;
- They don’t help the government think it through;
- They stick with the ‘Same Old Same Old’;
- They don’t’ have a champion for their issue/cause WITHIN government.
The following five ideas are designed to help you avoid these common failures.
1. Understand the Thinking Inside the Box … of Government
A universal key to successful persuasion is the ability to understand those whom you are trying to convince. This means understanding their values, objectives, needs and ways of looking at the world. In general and your issue in particular.
I call this “strategic inquiry” and consider it the essential first step in effective advocacy – understanding what the government thinks it knows and why.
Before you develop your ‘ask’, (i.e. your proposition or request to government) consider how the government views your particular issue – what are its assumptions, constraints and influences.
Today there is an emphasis in government to consider public policy implications laterally across several government departments, a “whole of government” perspective. Small organizations shouldn’t be intimidated by this kind of broad approach. What is required is “inquiry, insight and intelligence” around the issue; try and understand both the “politics” and the “public policy” of the issue you are dealing with.
There are, what I call, six ‘P’s of public-policy advocacy to take into account:
Purpose / Principle – what is the basic principle – from the government’s perspective – underlying the public policy issue you are interested in?
Process – what is the process? Who are the decision-makers and what are the decision timetables that are central to the issue that you are dealing with?
Precedent – Every decision that government makes, one way or another, is guided or influenced by some notion of another of “precedent.” “If we do it for this group, do we’ll have to do it for someone else?” Or, “we have always done it this way.” Or “What are the precedential implications of your particular proposal?”
Positioning – How is the department/official/politician you’re dealing with, positioning this issue?
Politics – What are the interpersonal dynamics (both among politicians and between departments) and relationships that this issue affects? Who is interested in this issue?
Perseverance – Nothing happens in public policy advocacy unless someone is actively and persistently pursuing the issue. Be prepared to spend the time over the medium to long-term researching, advocating and recalibrating your position.
Considering the above dimensions will provide your organization with much of the necessary information for taking a “strategic approach” to one’s advocacy and will provide important information on the decision-making process, on targets and on timetables. It will also provide inspiration for an effective advocacy narrative; e.g. What is the framework by which our organization is going to present our arguments?
2. The Importance of ‘Do-It-Yourself Public Policy’.
Getting the attention of decision-makers and advisors and motivating them to act on what you want is an intensely competitive process. One of the most important things you can do is to provide public officials with material they can use in a format with which they’re familiar.
This involves learning how to “do” public policy or at least know the formats, language and considerations that are used in government policy development. Most of this information is publicly available on the Internet or through Access to Information/Freedom to Information requests.
- “Use their tools and speak their language.” This is the key. Understanding the type of information used by government in its decision-making processes is helpful to any organization that is developing its own strategy to influence public policy, regardless of the level of government involved. It’s a blueprint of sorts, on how to look at issues in the way those in government are required to do. For example, most changes in public policy require a briefing note to the minister. If this is the case, provide information in a format, which can be used directly in such a briefing note; it will save a bureaucrat’s time and may help to expedite some of the process.
As a final note, this work can be time-consuming. Using a government relations consultant or lobbyist can be one approach, but an equally effective alternative is to find a recently retired civil servant who is knowledgeable in the issues and decision-making processes you are interested in and may be willing to work on a volunteer basis. Another simple tip: buy a government telephone book, which can be a very practical way to understand a government’s organizational structure.
3. Advocacy Asset Management: Building Political Capital
Whether its leadership realizes it or not, every organization has varying amounts of political capital. Strategically, for the organization, the important thing is to view “political capital” as an asset without which little can be achieved. Building it should be a prime concern of every Board whose priority objectives include being effective in public-policy advocacy.
What is meant by political capital? By my definition, it includes:
- individual and institutional/corporate reputations;
the organization’s traditions, icons and myths;
- the organization’s accomplishments (particularly in being able to demonstrate that they can work successfully with government); a supportive membership;
- specific expertise within the organization or a history of dealing with data that is relevant to the public policy issue;
- contacts at the political and bureaucratic levels
- the ability to support and help other organizations.
4. Less Predictability, More Opportunism
Machiavellian though it may sound, advocates need to consider the value of such things as being “strategically opportunistic” while avoiding being “too predictable in their public-policy advocacy and strategic communications. This means aiming for a balance between being competently reliable and avoiding being taken for granted. It also implies a “third option” alternative to being either “reactive” or “proactive” in one’s advocacy. Call it “strategic opportunism.”
Be prepared to be reactive – but wait for the opportunity to present itself where you can have the greatest influence.
Avoid being a “one-trick” pony – always saying the same things, the same way, demonstrating resistance to change and innovation. Be entrepreneurial; regularly re-invent your organization’s approach by offering new and fresh ideas; not the ‘same old, same old’.
Be opportunistic in another way as well. Make a conscious effort towards having a positive communications strategy – particularly when talking about government and politician. Stress the positive and curb the negative. However, this does not imply that an organization needs to be ‘promiscuously Pollyanna’ on all issues all the time. But, rather, rather think about how to be constructive and supportive – strategically, of course. For example, take the time to send a note to a government official that you deal with when you see them doing something that is laudatory. his type of approach also builds political capital for the time when an organization has no alternative but to strongly (and publicly) criticize the government’s direction. In this way, you can be less predictable, but more strategic.
5. The Vital Role of “Champions”
The complex, often volatile, nature of political and public-policy decision-making is such that very little of anything happens to a proposition or an idea unless there is someone inside the government who is driving the issue or prepared to sponsor it. The challenge then is how to find such “champions,” how to motivate them to help and how to support their efforts. To you, they are champions. To them, your organization may be a “partner” in a particular issue, an important consideration in today’s government environment.
Champions can help your “connectedness” to the system. Having or not having a champion is a measure of your advocacy; If you can’t get someone to be your champion, that may be an early warning about the practicality or relevance of what you’re asking for. As one senior bureaucrat said: “You may need to ask some questions of and about yourself, your organization, your position or idea, if no one in government wants to hold your hand.”
Of course, the perfect champion on an issue is the minister of the department you’re lobbying but there are a number of other potential champions as well. (Indeed, there is often way too much emphasis in many organizations on ‘getting in to see the minister”. In most governments, most of the time, 90% of the issues are actually “decided” in a government or a department and are simply ratified or “fronted” by the minister. As former cabinet minister once said, “Getting in to see the minister is often the last gasp of a losing lobbying campaign”. Unless you have been successful in making your case with ministry officials or the political staff who advise the minister, you will likely not be successful in your efforts
Some other champions might include: public servants, legislators, political advisors / ministerial assistants, community leaders and celebrities. For example, an Ontario company which was recently with a regulatory issue and a very closed, secretive, inaccessible government agency found two champions – their local MP who pressed the agency for a fair and timely process (while being careful not to press the regulator for a specific outcome; that would be undue interference) and officials of another, separate government department who believed that a solution was possible and in the best interests of federal public policy generally. In this case the “champions” were not in the agency which was being lobbied but rather were individuals elsewhere in the same government who were critical in convincing the agency of our client’s cause.
Good Resources on Advocacy
Privy Council Office – Format for Memorandum to Cabinet
William T. Stanbury, Business-Government Relations in Canada: Influencing Public Policy (second edition), Nelson Canada, 1993
Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Max, Organizing for Social Change: The Midwest Academy Manual for Activists, Seven Locks Press, Santa Ana California, 2001
Jim Schultz, The Democracy Owners’ Manual: A Practical Guide to Changing the World, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J. 2003
Saul Alinksy, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, Vintage Books, New York, 1972
Drafters Guide for Memorandum to Cabinet: This document can be very useful in explaining to those outside government what kind of information and analysis is required by the federal Cabinet before it makes important decisions. This is an older document than the above resource but perhaps better presented and much more helpful.