Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about government relations

Published on 29/01/2018

When approaching politicians with your issues, you will be competing for attention with many other stakeholder groups. To help politicians understand your issues, your message will need to be clear, crisp and concise. In this Five Good Ideas session, Jaime Watt, Executive Chairman of Navigator Ltd., presented his five good ideas on how to get your message heard – and acted on.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Offer a benefit to the decision maker while simultaneously making your demand. Simply put, create a win for the government.
  2. Be aware that you are competing for attention with other stakeholder groups.
  3. Your message must be consistent and the information distilled.
  4. Be clear, crisp, concise.
  5. Discover the cross-section between your objectives and the changing government agenda.


  1. Thank you for smoking, a movie by Jason Reitman – An example of how not to practice.
  2. Lobbying Act, Government of Canada Justice Rules website – The lobby rules, a must read for any practitioner.
  3. Lobbying for Change, book by Alberto Alemanno – A book which signals that lobbying is not always evil.
  4. 6 tips for outstanding advocacy, Bernadette Johnson & Bill Schaper, Imagine Canada
  5. The realities of lobbying – a look beyond the smoke and mirrors, TEDx Talk by Maria Laptev  – In defense of lobbying.

Full session transcript

Well, thank you very much. You know, what’s a really good idea is these Five Good Ideas. I hadn’t heard about this series before and now that I’ve learnt more about it, it’s pretty terrific. And Connor, my colleague, and I, we’re here today together. We’re also very much looking forward to being with you, because leaders of civil society are the ones that we admire the most.

Our firm Navigator is very much dedicated to building a better community. We have a bit of a Robin Hood practice, we give away 30 per cent of our work on a pro bono basis, so that we can help do our part in building a better civil society. For those of you who dedicate yourselves to that every day and across all those sectors, you really have our respect and our admiration.

I’m going share with you some of my views on government relations and hopefully you’ll beat those ideas up and we’ll hear it from you as well. Whenever I get feedback from talks I’m lucky enough to give, people always like the question and answers the best. So we’ll try and move to that as quickly as we can, and give you a chance to share some of your experiences.

Not everybody likes people involved in the government relations business. Sometimes people have some, well let’s just say, highly developed views. And those views come across all parts of the political spectrum. At the risk of sounding like an undergraduate, let me quote Ayn Rand for you, she famously said that “Lobbying is the activity of attempting to influence legislation by privately influencing the legislators. It is the result and creation of a mixed economy of government by pressure groups. Its methods range from mere social courtesies and cocktail party or ‘luncheon friendships,’ to threats, bribes, and blackmail.”

Well I think you can say it to describe is the other end of the political spectrum. Senator Warren — Elizabeth Warren, the senior Senator from Massachusetts says that, “The banks lobbied Washington so they could write the rules that got us into the financial crisis. They then lobbied Washington to get the money to bail them out. And now they’re lobbying Washington to write the rules so they get us into the next crisis.”

So whether it’s big tobacco, or pharma, or defense, or developers, corporate lobbyists are pretty much loathed, a liar for hire, some people say. And they get stuck into the same category as insurance salespeople, CRA tax auditors, and parking enforcement officers. Not exactly a particularly well liked group. But I have a different view, and that view is that citizens, not taxpayers, citizens, have the right to assistance when dealing with their government. It is an absolutely ridiculous notion that we would expect anyone to go to court without a lawyer. We would not expect anyone to go through any kind of administrative tribunal of any kind, without having her lawyer at her side. So why on earth would we expect people whose expertise it is not, to try and understand the byzantine labyrinth of government without some help? And that’s what good government relations people do.

The days of the back-filled rooms and so on, are long gone. You know, the term lobbying came from a hotel in Washington where people used to, where the President used to stay, before they had the White House. And people would sit in the lobby and try to catch him on the way in and the way out, hence the term lobbyist. And properly applied, done in a democracy, with disclosure, and with sunlight shined upon it, I think the ability to be represented with your government, to get government to do something that you’d like them to do, or mostly to get them not to do something, is really an important part of a functioning democracy.

I’m gonna give you some rules, I’ve got five good ideas, I was told I had to stick to five. But I’ll break that rule right away, and say the biggest rule of lobbying is to be in with the outs. And this is something that is always forgotten. You need to be in with the outs, because eventually the outs become the ins, right? Everybody gets a turn eventually. It’s hard to predict. If we could market time, we’d live in better houses, and we’d have more money in our RSPs. But eventually, the outs become the ins. And the time to influence them is when they’re the outs, because no one else is paying attention to them at that particular point in time, right?

When you’re in the opposition, the distance between the opposition and government is massive. Stephen Lewis once said when Premier Rae was elected, that he had learned more in 30 days of the New Democrats being in power, than he’d learned in 30 years in being out of power. So that’s the first thing to think about, is to be in with the outs. The second, an idea at least, in defense of lobbying, is that corporate advocacy is not necessarily by definition self-interested. Corporations are often advocating for things that are important, for the economy as a whole. And AFDA would be an example. Lobbyists are also important in bringing different perspectives to current decision-making. If all you have are people telling you this is what you wanna hear, and telling you the story from the same perspective and the same point of view, pretty hard to get a diverse sense of how a policy will play, or how a policy will impact different groups of people.

You know, in other parts of the world, movement is encouraged between working in government and working in either the private sector, or working in the third sector. And people throughout their careers are going back and forth. And in my view that’s a very healthy thing, because it’s quite useful for our tax official to have actually spent time as a tax practitioner. Here in Canada, we’ve developed the idea that that is a recipe for corruption, right? And that people only do that for improper purposes. So as a consequence, you’ve got people making decisions that don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, and have never been exposed to the real world realities. So having lobbyists make representations to government on those issues, having a small business owner who understands what the impact of a rule or regulation or a legislative change will be. Talking to government on that can be very, very helpful. And absent, the lobbying effort, that won’t take place. Because the default is just to listen to officials and the people that are around you.

Also, sorry. It’s also very important that lobbyists help people that don’t have a voice or don’t have money to spend. We recently helped, on a pro bono basis, Pro Bono Ontario, which is an organization that provides legal support to those who will not be covered by legal aid. So there’s a gap as you probably know between people who can afford to pay for legal services, those services which can be legally aided, and there’s a gap in the middle. And Pro Bono Ontario exists to plug that gap. And for 15 years they were trying to get proper funding of the Government of Ontario, and had no luck. And these are very talented people, they’re successful lawyers, they’re good advocates in their own courts, they know what they’re doing. But they could not unlock the key to government. And our team gave them some help, we reframed their argument into an argument that we knew would be sympathetically heard by the Wynne government, and we got them a number of millions of dollars in a long-term commitment, a long-term support. That would not have come without lobbying, and the evidence wouldn’t have come without a lobbying effort.

And one of the things also to know about, that’s changed about lobbying, is that money doesn’t matter anymore. And this is a big structural change, that I think for many of your organizations, it’s probably quite meaningful. Used to be, people who wrote the big cheques got the most access. Now, I don’t think they necessarily got the most decisions, because in my career I’ve only seen once or twice, people do, you know, things that they ought not to have done, it’s just not true. We don’t live with a corrupt government.

But what it used to be, if an organization wrote a check for 100, or 150, or $200,000, they would get access, for sure. They would get their phone calls returned, they would get a meeting with the Minister, for sure. As I said, I don’t believe the Minister did anything untoward, but they certainly got chances here. Now of course, with no donations allowed by unions, no donations allowed by business, and the maximum donation, roughly 1,500 bucks or something, money doesn’t matter. You can’t buy that access anymore.

And the second thing is with social media, you’re now able to, very inexpensively, put together a coalition of people. Geography doesn’t matter anymore, you can round those people up from communities all across the province or all across the country, and you can have a voice just as powerful as the voice of any major lobbying organization. So that change, that structural change between election finance reform and the advent of social media, you put those two things together, and anybody can be a lobbyist. And that’s a big, big change. And is a big change from what it used to be. So if anybody can be a lobbyist, then what are some of the …, and this is where I have my five ideas for you. Five ideas on how to be a good lobbyist, how can you be the most advocatious lobbyist, how can you make your government relations plan the most successful?

And the first is, like any good salesperson, you have to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. And you have to create a benefit for them. So thinking about going into that Minister’s office, the Premier’s office, the Prime Minister’s office, rather than going in with your need, you’ve gotta think about what is the win for them. Is it a legacy win? You have to remember, all these politicians, no matter what legislature they’re in, every day they walk down the hall, they see all those names chiseled in marble, right? And they see all those big portraits of people, and they want theirs there, and they want their name chiseled in marble as well. All they think about is their legacy. So what is it about your ask that can perhaps drive, you know, their legacy?

What is it about your ask — they’re ambitious, right? If the Minister of, I don’t know, Tourism, they wanna be the Minister of Economic Development. If they’re the Minister of Economic Development, they might want to be the Finance Minister. What is it about your ask, or how you frame it, can you create a win from them? Can you create an illogical win, right? Is this somebody who isn’t in power because they’re particularly interested in better educating our kids, equality for LGBTQ people, you know, whatever. Are they motivated because of some crisis in their own life, they lost a child or something? You know, how can you create your ask in a way that creates a win for either the person, or for the government as a whole?

You know, for example, if you’re lobbying the liberal government, you know that they cannot win an election unless they own management of health care, education, and let’s call it what we call it, community and social services, but human services, right? They actually don’t have to be that good on law and order, and they don’t have to be that good on finances. If they can do both, then they get a landslide victory, right? But if you’re talking to conservatives, nobody would ever hire Stephen Harper to tuck them into bed and read them a bedtime story, right? So he didn’t give a shit about that, that wasn’t his métier, right? So you have to think, what is it, how can you package it, and I’m not talking about turning yourself into a pretzel or being somebody that you’re not. But how can you package it in a different way?

And along with that, language becomes very important. And you know, you can’t just take a proposal that has a blue cover on it, rip the blue cover off, and put a red cover, it doesn’t work like that. You know, conservatives talk about families. The liberals talk about the middle class, right? They use different language. And it’s not hard to pick that language up, just pick up their documents and copy the way, you know, copy the way they write into the way that you write, so it has resonance and consonance for them. And every government has its own language.

Conservatives like P3. Well, the liberals came in, they said P3 was the most terrible thing of all time, until they found out they’re broke and they needed some P3. So they couldn’t call it P3, so they call it APM, Alternate Procurement Method, otherwise known as P3, right? But if you put P3 into your proposal, they’re gonna have a fit. If you put their word in, you’re gonna have some resonance.

The second thing, and it’s very important, is to be aware that your ask is one of literally an infinite number of other asks. Almost all of which are legitimate. Almost all of which are worthy. So when the Minister or the Treasury Board, or the Premier, are adjudicating your ask, it’s not your ask against screwball, ridiculous, waste of money. Now, believe me it’s government, so there’s a lot of those. Alright, there’s a lot of those. But they’re actually deciding between two legitimate, two, three, ten, legitimate asks. So you have to be aware about what other people are asking for, and how can you sharpen yours? How can you inject urgency? Because the risk when you want something that costs the money is that, what they do, is they simply defer it. Well, we won’t say no, but we won’t do it now, because someone else’s ask is more urgent. And then we’ll do yours next year. So how can you frame your ask in a way that makes it more important vis-à-vis, you know, vis-à-vis somebody else’s.

How many people actually served in government, like in a political office or a Minister’s office? Okay, so you will all know that the pace of work, the volume of work, and the volume of material that you have to process is like, essentially, like no other job there is. It is unbelievable. Talk about drinking from a fire hose. You know, I’m so fed up with people who make jokes about officials and political staffers or whatever, because they work like maniacs. They don’t have enough resources. It’s a very difficult proposition. And they’re always terrified that they’re going to miss something. So it’s really important that you have a consistent, distilled message that you tell over and over again. And not be upset when you have to meet with kids in short pants. Everybody complains, you know, they had to meet these young people. And, well, you know what, I’m gonna let you in on a secret. Those young people make a lot of decisions, and they’re smart as hell, and they work really hard, and you underestimate them at your peril. That’s our system, they’re paid nothing, literally nothing, their lives are destroyed, their relationships broken up, because, oh, they give them, and they burn out, and they last 18 months, 24 months, then they go onto something else.

But while they’re there, they are extremely, extremely important. And it’s not an offense, and it’s not a slight. And if I hear one more big-shot business person complain, they went to the Minister of Finance and talked to some 28-year-old, well you know what? That 28-year-old’s got a PhD in tax policy, and knows more about this subject than you’ll ever know in your whole life, and he’s gonna be your boss soon. So a little more respect and recognition that that’s the process will go a long way.

The fourth idea is just to be very crisp, write with elegance, simplicity, economy, grace. Use one word when one word will do. Don’t overburden them with documentation. And if you do, learn about this thing called the appendix. Right? And appendices are wonderful things, right? So if you do have a technical argument that you’re making that does come with a lot of documentation, write a headnote that is easy to read and easy to understand, and refers to 942 pages, you know, of background material which almost no one will read.

And then the last point is a version of the first point, which is to discover the cross-section between your objectives and the changing government objectives. So for quite a few years, I was the chair of the board at Casey House, our AIDS hospice. And when Casey House was established, our founders, under the law of unintended consequences, thought it would be a good idea, because we were dealing with so much AIDS phobia, and homophobia, and stigma almost 30 years ago, they got assorted so that Casey House would be a hospital. An actual hospital under the Public Hospitals Act of Ontario. And they did that because they thought we would be taken more seriously. Well, that was good in some ways, but it was bad in other ways. Because, anyone here from a LHIN? No, anyone here from a LHIN, before I complain about them? Okay good.

So the problem for Casey House was it is in the LHIN, which is the one that gives out the capital money, right? So if you want capital money for your hospital project, you have to go to the LHIN things. And the Toronto Central LHIN has in it Mount Sinai, SickKids, University Health Network, St. Michael’s, Bridgepoint, and Casey House. So what do you think the chances of me getting $45 million out of the LHIN were? Call it zero, right? So what we did was we sent our executive director to the LHIN meetings. Our CEO, she got a title bump. Our CEO, and what she was supposed to do was, whatever they asked. Whatever they wanted, she did. They wanted it in triplicate, she did triplicate, they wanted pink writing on green paper, whatever they did.

And at the end of the meeting, she was to go like this. And they would say, oh, what on earth is the problem? And she was supposed to say, it’s my board chair. He is impossible, he’s an egomaniac, he is out of control, he’s embarrassing, he thinks he knows everything, he never listens, and then they’ll pat you on the head and say, oh dear, don’t worry, you know, he’s just a volunteer, he’ll be gone in a couple of years and you’ll still be here, and, you know. Heard this story a thousand times, right? And then the next month, the next LHIN meeting, she was supposed to rinse and repeat, do the same thing again. And they go, is he still there? Oh, she says, it’s getting worse, I don’t know what to do.

In the meantime, I had figured out that, I don’t know if you know, Casey House is on the corner of Isabella and Jarvis, at the time, Isabella and Huntley. And that riding that my AIDS hospice was in, the MPP was a guy by the name of George Smitherman. Well, AIDS is not, as we know, exclusively a gay issue, it’s a lot gay. And I heard the MPP was gay, the Minister of Health, right? And, like, this is a harmonic convergence, this never happens, right? So while she was at the LHIN, with her head in her hands complaining about me, I just made an appointment, I went and lobbied George. And I got $45 million out of him. Plus I got $3 million additional baked into my, into our base for the whole time. Now, MOHLTC went bananas, the LHIN went crazy, they all went screaming. Well, go drive by what $45 million built, right? ‘Cause it’s open today, taking care of people that are living with HIV and AIDS, and doing an amazing job. It’s the best in the world, I’m so proud of that place. It’s the best in the world. But we got it by framing that as a win for George, as a legacy for George.

Now, if I was a policymaker, was that the best use of the next $45 million in Toronto? In health capital spending? I don’t know. Was there a more important ask at SickKids? Or at Princess Margaret? Or somewhere else? Possibly. But that wasn’t my job, right? My responsibility wasn’t to the system, my responsibility was to my institution. And by finding that sweet spot, where he could have something that was important to him, we could do it, no, we got no special, once, other than the approval, we didn’t get any special treatment. It’s not like we got to spend whatever we wanted, we went through all the government procurement, and all the Infrastructural Ontario rules, and everything else. But lobbying got that, lobbying got that done.

Same with Maple Leaf Gardens, the conversion of Maple Leaf Gardens for Ryerson. Well, my office was successful in framing that in a way that provided the money for Ryerson to actually close that deal by finding that space. ‘Cause remember, we got that money from the federal government. The federal government really isn’t in the post-secondary institution business, but we found a way through the appeal of hockey. An iconic building that meant a lot to a lot of people, meant a lot to the conservative space, and as a consequence were able to be successful for that. So that cross-section between what you want and what they want, particularly in the lead-up to an election is one way that you can be sure that you get a fair shot at getting what you want, when in other circumstances you wouldn’t.

I said there was one thing that I would break the rules of five. One is be in with the outs, because the outs become the ins. And the other one that I’d break is that you miss 100 per cent of the shots that you don’t take. And to use another cliché from the development or the fundraising world, you know, there’s not a shortage of donors, there’s a shortage of askers. And that is very true in government relations. You need to be constantly asking, constantly repackaging, constantly coming up with another way of putting what you want forward. And while you’re doing that, monitoring the changing dynamics of the situation, the changing dynamics of the economy, the changing dynamics of public opinion, whether the government’s on the way up, or the government’s on the way down. But you just need to ask more, and more, and more.


Jaime Watt

Executive Chairman of Navigator Ltd.

Jaime Watt is the Executive Chairman of Navigator Ltd. He specializes in complex public strategy issues, serving both domestic and international clients in the corporate, professional services, not-for-profit, and government sectors. He is a trusted advisor to business leaders as well as political leaders at all three levels of government across Canada. Jaime has led ground-breaking election campaigns that have transformed politics because of their boldness and creativity. Jaime is immediate past president of the Albany Club, Canada’s oldest political club. He also serves on the boards of many other organizations including the Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation in Toronto, the Shaw Festival and Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. As well, he chairs the Capital Campaign for Casey House, Canada’s pioneer AIDS hospice, and is past president of the Canadian Club of Toronto, Canada’s oldest podium of record. Deeply involved with efforts to promote equality and human rights issues, he was the inaugural recipient of Egale’s Lifetime Achievement Award and has been awarded the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals for service to the community. He recently received Out on Bay Street’s Leader to be Proud of Award. Jaime has been elected to the College of Fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, is a Toronto Heritage Companion, and was recently named one of Toronto’s most influential citizens. A highly regarded speaker, Jaime appears often as a public affairs commentator in the media.