Tools for leaders & organizers

Sharpening your message for maximum impact

So you’ve got 30 minutes with the Minister… Now what? Whether it’s your MP, MPP, mayor or other political leader, how do you make the most of your opportunity with a decision maker? In this webinar, moderator Ige Egal talked to Liz Mulholland, CEO of Prosper Canada, about best practices and resources to craft the right message for maximum impact. This was the fourth in a five-part webinar series on strengthening your nonprofit’s capacity to engage in public policy co-presented by Maytree and the Ontario Nonprofit Network. Find the full series here.

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Webinar transcript

Ige Egal:

Hello and welcome to today’s webinar – So you’ve got 30 minutes with the minister; now what? Sharpening your message for maximum impact. Today’s session is being co-presented by the Ontario Nonprofit Network and Maytree.

My name is Ige Egal and I’ve been working in the non-profit sector for a number of years. I’m very excited about this topic because of course as you might be aware, when you work in the sector and you come across a particular issue, you start to think about it. And when you’re thinking about it, there are ideas you want to pursue, and some of those ideas should be heard. And when you get a moment or an opportunity to meet with a minister, then you’d be prepared.

For me, I’m looking at this session as really preparing for the moment because I’ve still got those ideas, and if I should ever meet the minister – well, then Liz, I’m looking to you to help me to get set for that.

This webinar is the fourth in a five-part series that really serves to strengthen the capacity of non-profits to actively participate in the development of public policy to influence positive change for communities. The series features content from two Maytree programs, the Civics Exchange and the Maytree Policy School.

Today’s audience includes people from all over Ontario, including Cambridge, Toronto, Peterborough, Hamilton, Ottawa, Newcastle, and Bancroft. Welcome everybody.

Today’s presenter Liz Mulholland is a faculty member with Maytree’s Policy School. She is also the CEO of Prosper Canada, a national charity dedicated to expanding economic opportunity for Canadians living in poverty through program and policy innovation.

Liz joined Prosper Canada in 2011 after an independent public policy consulting, and five years as the Senior Advisor of social development in the office of the prime minister, providing strategic direction on national, social, and health policy issues.

She has held senior policy positions in the non-profit and private sectors, working throughout her career to strengthen the relationship between Canada’s voluntary, public, and private sectors, and to develop capacity of non-profit organizations to participate effectively in public policy-making.

Before we get started, we do have a quick poll. We’ll put it up here. We want to know which level of government you interact with. As we mentioned earlier, there are several different organizations presented, and you are dealing in different sectors. You might be dealing in a sector that is with one jurisdiction versus another, or you might be in a complete jurisdictional no-man’s land.

So that will definitely impact which level of government you interact with and how as well. Take a moment to answer that and we’ll get a sense of where everybody is today.

The results are in and it’s overwhelmingly provincial at 67 per cent, and the federal government and the municipal government both at 17 per cent. We’ll keep that in mind as we go through the webinar and we’ll get started in a moment.

Today’s webinar is based on content presented at the Maytree Policy School. Liz will present her ideas on sharpening your message for maximum impact with political leaders, followed by questions from myself and you. Again, if you have questions, please type them in as we go, and over to you Liz.

Liz Mulholland:

Great. Thanks very much Ige, and welcome everybody. Very excited to be here today talking about this very important topic. You don’t get many shots with a minister so it’s important to make it count.

What I’m going to talk about is:

  • what you need to know about ministers generally and how to motivate them;
  • how to set your objectives for your meeting with the minister;
  • preparing for your meeting;
  • how to conduct the meeting itself,;
  • the important question of follow-up from the meeting, which is very essential but often overlooked; and
  • some key takeaways and resources.

Without any more ado we’ll get right into it.

What motivates a minister?

Okay, so first question is: “What actually motivates a minister?”

As with anything when we’re asking somebody to do something for us it’s important to know what motivates them and how they might respond to us. The first thing I always tell everybody is every politician really wants to be a hero. We all want to look good. We all want to be admired.

Politicians are no different. Successful advocates really want to help their policymakers advance their priorities and solve problems and obstacles in their path. Ministers are always seeking to keep the promises that they made to people, to advance the priorities that their government has set. So the extent to which you can connect to those and show them how you can help them will really help move your advocacy along.

Politicians also fall along a spectrum. There’s a whole range of different personalities, but at one hand you have some that are much more interested in the substance of policymaking and running government. They’re very interested in data and evidence. I call those the wonks.

At the other far end of the spectrum you have what we call the politicos. These are people that are really a little more interested in their own careers maybe, really kind of the type I call “let’s make a deal; I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.” They’re really looking for opportunities to get some wins. They’re a little less interested in the nuts and bolts of policymaking and the finer details and nuances.

You really have to suss out who you’re dealing with and then tailor your messaging and how you approach them accordingly.

So what motivates ministers beyond that?

Politicians are almost all people people. You don’t find many introverts in politics or occasionally you get a minister who is, but most of them are extroverts. They really are interested and engaged with people. While evidence is really important to making your case, it should always be paired with compelling stories that really put a human face on your issue and really express in human terms why it’s important to do what you’re asking them to do.

I’d also say that most politicians contrary to popular belief actually do want to say yes to people. They find it stressful to say no. They don’t like it. None of us like to disappoint people and they most of all because they know that means that you probably won’t like them afterwards.

But in order for them to say yes to you, you have to make it as easy as possible for them. That’s your job as an advocate. This really means building a strong case and support both internally in the government and externally with key stakeholder groups before you actually meet the minister. That makes it much easier for them to say yes.

The other key thing to keep in mind about ministers is they are powerful – very powerful people – but only to a point. They don’t have a magic wand. Ministers can make policy, program, and spending decisions that are within the mandate of their ministry or department alone, so they don’t require other ministries or departments to commit resources or to do operational things. They can make decisions as long as they’re in line with the government’s general direction and policy thrust to date so they’re not doing any 180 turns, they’re not contradicting the government’s policy that’s on the record or what they ran on.

They can do things that don’t cost any money. They can convene people and talk to people and do all sorts of things like that. They can also make decisions to do things that they can fund internally by just moving money around in their ministry or department.

But not all money can be moved around. Money is authorized for certain things, and so they may have to go to a Treasury Board, management board to get that change, but within a certain margin they can move a bit of money around. So if your ask isn’t too expensive, they might be able to help you.

Anything else that falls outside of that, they actually have to negotiate with other players in the government. This may mean that they have to coordinate with other ministries or departments and get agreement on the way forward and who’s going to do what and how much resources they’re going to commit.

It may mean they have to go to the department of finance. It may mean that they need to ask for money in the next budget because they don’t have enough money in their budget to do it. It may mean that they need to go to the premier’s office or the prime minister’s office to get permission to go forward with something because it’s a big change in policy.

And if it is a big change in policy, they also probably need to go to cabinet for full approval, or if they want to launch a major new program or spend a lot of money that they don’t have already.

This means that they have to do a lot of work to do what you’re asking typically. It’s not a slam dunk. Try not to think of going to the minister as a shortcut to the promised land. It’s often just the beginning of a longer journey, but getting their buy-in and support is very important.

Setting objectives for your meeting

Okay, so you’ve got a meeting set up with the minister. The most important thing that you can do is be really clear in your own mind about what your objectives are.

So what is your target outcome for your meeting? What is it that we want to be different at the end of that meeting? What are you trying to do in here?

Are you knowledge-sharing? Do you just want the minister to be more informed and have that knowledge inform their decisions going forward?

Are you trying to get the minister to make a funding commitment? Are you asking them to change a program, to make it better? Are you asking them to make changes in how something is administered?

If you’re talking to the minister of national revenue or around tax credits and things and how those are dealt with – are you asking for a policy change or even a change in regulations?

Are you asking them to agree on a process? Perhaps you’re suggesting that the government should consult on a topic, or undertake joint collaborative research, or you’re about to enter into negotiation around something for your sector and you’re trying to agree on a process. What is it that you want to achieve out of this meeting?

Having a clear and specific goal – and you may have more than one, but try not to have a lot – this will really help you determine what you share with the minister, how you frame it, and then how you actually make your argument.

I’ll caveat this by saying, sometimes you find out you have a meeting with the minister the day before. So preparation is sometimes something you don’t have the luxury of, but in most cases you get lots of lead time before you go in to see a minister or and you get to often choose when you ask to go see the minister, so you do have time to prepare. It’s important to use that time to your best advantage.

Preparing for your meeting

The first thing you should do is really make sure you’ve mapped the lay of the land around what I’m going to call your ask, because if you’re going to a minister you’re usually asking them to do something, so I’m going to call that your ask. Before you actually go to that meeting you should have answered a whole set of questions that will really help position you strategically.

The first thing you should know is – how does my ask fit with the political priorities and values of the government that I’m approaching and the minister in question? The government and the minister aren’t identical. There are differences there too. If there isn’t a natural fit between what you’re doing or asking for and the government’s priorities and stuff, try to think through where is there some common ground that we can build on.

This is a really, really important piece because like any partnership or collaboration there needs to be some common ground in order to move forward. So it’s really important to identify where that is and to put real language around that.

Governments always want to be able to say they’re doing good things for citizens, for groups, for the province, for the country, so it’s really important to be very clear on what the benefits are of what you’re proposing. So what are the benefits to Ontarians, Canadians? Are there specific groups that are going to benefit from this that you want to speak to that you know the government cares about? How will it benefit the government? Are you solving a problem for them? Will this help them to realize an objective that they’ve set for themselves or to fulfill a promise that they’ve made to citizens?

Also in government, my old boss – Jean Chrétien – used to say, it’s easy to solve one problem if you don’t mind creating ten more. The real trick in advocacy and policy work in particular is not creating ten more problems. People in government are very good at doing that analysis to identify what are all the other problems this is going to create and finding reasons why this would not be a good thing to do.

It’s really important for you to think about the costs of what I’m asking the government to do and the risks associated with that. Costs can be purely financial, so how much money am I asking the government to spend, not to put too fine a point on it, and are there costs that this is going to generate for other stakeholders as well? You should be aware of those.

Also, what are risks for the government? Is this a very controversial thing you’re asking them to do? Is there likely to be a lot of blow back from other groups? Are they risking their political future on this? Are you asking them to expend vast amounts of political capital or just a tiny bit? It’s important to understand the nature and the implications of what you’re asking for.

It’s also really important to understand do the ministry or department officials who are advising that minister actually support what you’re asking him or her to do? Do they oppose it? Are they neutral? They’re kind of sitting on the fence? They’re not quite sure?

You want to think about it from the civil service perspective, but also the minister has advisors in their own office. They’re more political. What do they think about this? It’s a good idea to always have had some conversations before you meet with the minister so you understand what advice they’re going to be getting from those around them.

You also need to think about what other relevant stakeholder groups are going to think about your ask. If you’re saying, “We would like you to do X but it’s going to have big financial implications for group Y, or it’s going to disadvantage group Z,” you need to be aware of that and you need to be prepared to respond to criticism and critiques about that.

The basic bottom line is the more time you spend answering these questions before you meet with the minister and refining your idea because typically when you go through the process asking yourself these questions and finding out the answers you’re going to end up changing what you’re recommending, you’re going to find ways to reduce the downsides, increase the benefits so it’s a more attractive proposition and it becomes something the minister does have an easier chance of saying yes to.

Meeting the minister is often if not the last step but maybe a later step in this advocacy process. It’s not something you do at the beginning to try and somehow short-circuit the need to not do all that other work, which is quite hard and often can take a long time. Ministers know when you’re trying to take a shortcut and they usually send you back to the drawing board. So you don’t want to waste your opportunities. Try and do this work beforehand.

Writing a briefing note

Okay, this is the most important tool in your toolkit when you are going to meet the minister – it’s called a briefing note. It’s essentially a one-to-two page bullet point summary of what you’re asking them to do and why it’s a good idea and what the benefits and costs are associated with that.

You can use this to structure how you present your ask in your meeting. Some people like to use PowerPoints. I use PowerPoints but I usually have a briefing note version that I can leave behind as well, or I can prepare for the officials later, because briefing notes is how people in government communicate with one another and it’s how officials communicate with ministers. It’s their standard format.

The more you use their format to communicate, the more likely it is your ideas are going to be communicated in the way that you present them rather than interpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted and showing up. And what you don’t want is broken telephone around your idea.

The briefing note has a number of sections. Different people take different approaches to this. There are slightly different styles. People use different headings. There’s no 100 per cent right way to do it, but these are pretty standard that I’m offering you and then you’ll put your own twist on it.

First thing is a really concise statement of what the recommendation or request is that you’re making to the minister. This should be no more than one to three lines, very, very crisp and concise, exactly what do you want them to do. Then you need to support that with the rationale. This is really a summary of the key arguments in favor of your recommendation with any supporting analysis and facts or data.

The next section is a little bit optional but I often find it very useful.  It’s called context, and it helps provide a little bit of background or historical information. You might summarize what’s been done to date on this issue and why more action is needed, or you might just kind of pull out a little bit and give broader contextual facts and figures that help to paint a picture that underscores why your recommendation is necessary and important.

`Then the benefits – a very key part, what are the benefits to individuals, relevant stakeholder groups, and to the government itself.

Cost. We’ve talked about this already but what you really need to do is say, “What will this cost the government in total over the specified time period? Who will pay for it?” If there are annual costs that are different each year, then kind of give them the schedule of what it would cost each year. If you’re asking for money for a program or something, provide a high level budget, five or six lines, nothing more.

Also, it’s really important if you are asking the government to invest, if you’re going to use that to leverage resources and contributions from other players, it’s really important to put that in the window because governments love to see that their investment is leveraging other investment.

Then there’s a final category called other considerations. This is really a catch-all where you can raise any other potential impacts and risks the government may be concerned about and you can preempt that concern by talking about how those can be mitigated.

When you’re going to meet with the minister it’s really important to think about how you’re going to engage with the officials that support the minister, particularly in the civil service, because they’re making recommendations to the minister. They’re the ones who are going to be crafting responses and operationalizing anything, so building a relationship with them is really an important goal through this process.

The officials are there forever. Ministers come and go, governments come and go, but officials are there for their whole career. If you build a good relationship with the ministry, that will really serve you in good step.

If you already have a friendly working relationship with ministry officials or department officials, share your briefing notes with them beforehand and invite them to give you any feedback or advice. That way they can give you a little bit of a heads-up on where there might be problems on what you’re recommending.

A good briefing note if it’s done well, and it really kind of mimics in a way the way that the government communicates, and if you’ve done a rigorous job, will actually just get cut and pasted – large parts of it – into the minister’s briefing note. Which is the ideal situation because then they hear the officials saying something and you saying the exact same thing and it sounds like the world is aligned. That’s your goal. It also just reduces the likelihood of this broken telephone problem where your requests are getting mischaracterized or somehow distorted just through lack of information.

Conducting your meeting

Now the meeting. You’ve done all your homework. You have a briefing note. You’ve given the officials a heads-up. You’ve mapped the lay of the land. The important thing to remember here is great advocacy is really built on bold aspiration, hard evidence, and a compelling story.

I’ll start with the aspirational part. Be positive. We’re often going in to talk about really intractable problems that need to be solved. But even a problem can be talked about using an opportunity lens or frame. So emphasize the upside opportunity of solving this problem or making headway on it more than the downside of not dealing with the problem.

It’s much more motivating than when you dwell on the magnitude of an enormous problem. Often it’s dispiriting and depressing to people and it actually demotivates them, it induces paralysis. You don’t want to do that.

Psychologically you want to empower them to say, “Yes, I want to tackle that issue.” When you’re bold and aspirational and you set a bold positive goal, it actually inspires people. That’s a really important tool to leverage.

Use evidence to make your case. I think we’re all familiar with this. Try and build a fact base around it that’s rigorous and then any objective independent person would say, “Yes, that’s credible.”

Use comparative data, appeal. We all have a desire to measure up in comparison to others. There’s a whole body of science on this. It’s always useful to show other jurisdictions on how we might be falling a bit behind, but if we do this thing we can move forward and closer to the front of the line.

multilateral institutions, whoever it is that the government may find credible and respect their opinion. If they agree with you, then make sure that you put that in.

Serving actual citizens. If you have the luxury or if somebody’s already done the work, you can borrow their results. Anything that demonstrates that your issue resonates with the public or they support your solution is good news because it means the politician would say, “Well, that’s great. People like that if I do it, so I don’t need to worry about making people angry.”

Finally, the human face and the compelling story. Stories are how we all learn. Our brains are hard-wired this way. We learn through stories. Present your evidence but then tell a human story around your issue, put a people face on it. This not only is how we learn but it also engages our emotions which can also motivate us. People in government are no different than anybody else. A lot of our decisions are driven by our emotions, even though we pretend they’re not, so make it work for you.

Also, use success stories. They may be from other jurisdictions, maybe the city next door, maybe the next province over, maybe another country. But these are important because they actually build proof of possibility.

People are often reluctant to take risks in government because if they fail it’s very public and they get a lot of criticism. So if you can show them this works in all these other places, that can build their confidence, and then if you talk to them and say, “And they know how to do it, there’ve been studies on best practice, and we’ve been learning from this,” that builds a sense of efficacy that also is very necessary for people to move forward.

Delivering your ask. Your meeting should really be divided into four parts. Five minutes for the introduction. This is the getting-to-know-you piece. First of all, thank the minister for seeing you. Expressing appreciation and gratitude is something that you should practice over and over and over again. Even if it’s just a small thing, it helps to build relationships.

Do the introductions. Make sure you are introduced to everybody in the room so you know who they are and what position they’re in. If they give you cards, great, make sure you get a card from any officials that are in the room or minister staff. If they don’t give it to you at the beginning, try and get them at the end or get their email addresses and names.

Then tell the minister a little bit about your organization or organizations if you’re a group going in so he knows a little bit about you. Try to use language or try to find some way to connect what your mission is or your focus is to what the government cares about. Try to use some language that they use to talk about what they care about. This helps build trust and it’s really important to set the stage that way at the beginning of the meeting.

Then you’ve got 10 minutes, really, in a 30-minute meeting to present your ask. This is basically running through the briefing note with the minister and maybe what you can do before you start that is say, “Minister, we’re going to take 10 minutes to tell you what we’re here to ask you about, and then we’d like to spend the next rest of the meeting discussing your questions, getting your feedback,” so that’s the way they know not to interrupt you in those 10 minutes. Ministers always do, they can’t help it, so you’re just going to have to roll with it, so be a little bit flexible. The officials won’t ask you questions in the middle. They’ll defer to the minister.

You’ve presented your ask. Then you need to make sure that you’ve left time for a good discussion around it. Really invite when you finish completing your presentation. Tell them you love to hear their questions and their feedback, and then listen and make sure somebody is designated to take very complete notes on everything they say because there’s lots of little clues in what people say in those meetings. So what did they like? What do they have concerns about and what do they need more information on? These are the most important things that you need to know.

Then finally, five minutes before the end of the meeting, signal to the minister that you’d like to take a few minutes to really talk about next steps. This is where you will summarize any kind of next steps that have already been identified in the conversation, so actions that people said they’re going to take, who’s going to take them, clarify timelines for when things are going to get done.

If there have been questions asked say, “We can commit to providing you with more information on ABCs or anything else you’d like to know that we could do some work on for you,” et cetera, and try as much as possible, make it concrete, who’s going to do what by when. Then close off just by thanking everyone for their time and their feedback and reiterating that you will be following up with them shortly.

Following up

Follow-up is often the most ignored part and it’s actually the most important part. This is really if you want to keep what I call your ball in play follow-up is absolutely essential. It’s essential to consolidate any gains you made in the meeting.

So if the minister expressed interest or support, you want to document that, you want to take that momentum and use it. You want to document things that people said they were going to do and hold them accountable for those actions that you agreed to. You want to signal that you’re serious and professional.

We’re not just kind of hapless and don’t know our way around here. We’re professional people who follow up on the things that we say we’re going to do. It builds a positive rapport. It helps build effective communication, and it keeps your ask alive and moving and prevents it from falling to the bottom of the priority list.

Because people in government, in a minister’s office –you deal with a crisis, I kid you not, every day – and it’s easy to get them thrown off your issue and your stuff goes to the bottom of the pile. The more time goes by and they haven’t heard from you, the lower down the priority list it goes. What you really want to do is keep that conversation going.

The first thing you do after you’d come back from your meeting, you take a deep breath, you pat yourself on the back, you ask yourself a set of questions. You debrief.

So did the minister agree that there is a problem and/or opportunity here? Do they agree that on what it is? Maybe you see it this way, but they said, “No, no, we think the problem is really X.” If that’s the case, they’re not going to agree on the solution, so you need to really do some more work on agreeing on the problem.

Do they think it’s important? Do they think this is a big issue or a little issue? Do they agree with your recommended course of actions? If they don’t, why didn’t they? And do you need to explore these questions more? Do you need to do more research, more consultation? Do you need to do more work on the issue or do you need to do more work on the solution? And how are you going to plan to do this?

What you’ve probably gathered by now is that follow-up can be a long and winding road because depending on what the answers to those questions are you may be in for quite a bit more work. And there’s lots of twists and turns along the way.

But once you’ve done your debrief and you’ve decided how you want to proceed, send an email within 24 hours to the political and civil service staff that were all in the meeting. Thank them for a productive meeting, document items of agreement, feedback, and follow-up actions with who’s going to do what and any timelines that you agreed to.

If appropriate, suggest a future check-in, either by email or a meeting to see how things are progressing. If you’re not clear on who to follow-up with, ask them to tell you. Typically, what they’ll do is say, “So and so will be the lead on this file and you should talk to them.”

Then you need to sit down and identify any steps you need to do to further refine your recommendation or build more support for it to keep your momentum up. And support can mean support internally in the government.

Often people say to you in a meeting with the minister, “Well, we like your idea, but you’re going to have to convince the finance department,” or, “The premier’s office would have to say okay to this,” or, “That other department would be really impacted, you’re really going to have to go see their minister’s office to get their buy-in.”

So you really need to identify who else in government do you need to bring on board. Sometimes they’re going to say, “Well, I could do that, but I know this stakeholder group and that stakeholder group would have my head on a platter,” so you need to go and do some work with the other stakeholder groups if possible or at least to figure out how you’re going to mitigate.

Then you’d need to actually turn that into a concrete action plan. You really want actions, steps you’re going to take, who’s going to do them, by when, and set up regular check-in meetings or phone calls or something to make sure everything keeps moving.

Key takeaways and resources

I’m just going to wind up by reminding you that relationship-building is actually a critical dimension for this whole process. As much as a meeting with the minister is very important, really your goal is to build a longer-term relationship, both with officials in the government and with the minister and their staff. So really think about the longer-term picture and how every engagement and interaction can be used to build that relationship.

If you do this right, you’re going to build mutual understanding and trust. Often there isn’t a lot of trust when the advocates and the minister first come together. You could be there to criticize them. Maybe you haven’t had a great relationship with this government, so really building that relationship – it’s good for you and it’s good for your issue if you can make it work.

In my experience from having spent a lot of time both in a minister’s office and on the other side advocating the ministers and government officials, really your success is really linked to how well you connect what you’re asking for to the government’s priorities, and your ability to frame the ask in a language that they can embrace.

We all come at life with different philosophies. We all have different technical jargon that we use. We have words that have meanings for us but they have different meanings for others.

So really when you’re thinking about how to communicate with the government or a minister, think about the words that they use and how even if it’s not the language that you normally use, how you can reframe what you want in language that resonates with them.

Listen to their feedback, learn, and adapt. Don’t go into broadcast mode. Communicate clearly what you want, but then always be listening to see what more you can learn. They’re giving you valuable intelligence. Use it. It usually means you’re going to have to adapt what you’re asking for. But that’s not a bad thing. You’re often getting to a better outcome by listening and learning from the perspectives of others and integrating those into how you move forward.

Acknowledge trade-offs and issues. There’s nothing more frustrating when you’re in the government and somebody comes in and pretends that the thing they’re asking you to do is easy, simple, and pain-free when it’s not, when it can be very expensive, and cost a lot of political capital.

It may still be the right thing to do, but you have to be ready to work with the government to deal with those trade-offs and issues and help find solutions to them. And if you’re not, they’re not going to do what you want. Just so you know that right at the get-go. Sometimes that’s fine. You make that choice.

But the final two things are focus on building that long-term relationship both with civil servants and the political level, and then acknowledge when somebody has done something to help or has made some progress in your issue. Even if it’s a baby step, just say, “Good, good for the government for doing that. Now we look forward to further progress because we still have a long way to go. That’s why I do it.”

Not, “What you just did was completely insufficient. I can’t believe the government did that. What kind of people are you?” I’m exaggerating, but actually I can recall after having spent almost 15 years in government being thanked twice and literally having spent years trying to move somebody’s file for them, and sometimes very successfully. Advocates always forget to thank the people in government who are working hard to move their issue forward.

Politicians need to be thanked publicly to show that what they’ve done is a good thing. So even if it’s a baby step, say thank you. Periodically thank the people who are working hard on your issue, tell them how much you appreciate their support and their feedback, and even if they’re critical of what you’re offering.

If you’re a scientist, your toughest critic is your best friend because they’re helping you to be better. Try and have that mindset when you’re engaging with people in government. Appreciate the feedback and the learning that they’re giving you and then you will build a better relationship and probably a better whatever you’re after too.

Finally, I just like to leave you with two resources. One is a fantastic little presentation on how to write effective briefing notes by Susan Doyle, the Advocacy School, and the second one is just a sample briefing note that was put together by an advocacy group that I work with that just gives you at least one example.

There are other ones if you go on websites. Just google briefing notes and you’ll see all sorts of examples up there, but I gave you one that I thought was useful. Thank you.


Ige Egal:

Thank you very much. That was excellent.

As we’re about to get to questions, I did pick up on one thing that you highlighted which was building relationships with the officials especially.

Are there any practical ways to do that if you haven’t asked but you know in the future that you might, whether it’s reaching out and listening to what their priorities are?

Liz Mulholland:

Yes. If you think that you’re going to need the government to do something down the road on your issue and you’ve already done quite a bit of work on it or you’ve done new research on it, it’s not a bad idea to introduce yourself to folks in the minister’s office who have responsibility for that issue and say, “Hi, I’d like to come in and brief you on an important issue that we’re working on.”

You could even say when you’re calling them, “You know, we don’t have a request on the government but we want to put this on your radar because we think we will be making some recommendations down in the future, but we’d love to get your thoughts and feedback.”

When you go and have that first meeting with the minister’s policy advisor and you brief them on the issue and tell them why it’s important, then it’s often a good idea to say, “Is there somebody in your department or ministry that I could meet with who was working on this,” or, “Is your department doing any work on this issue? We would love to compare notes and see what their thinking is. It’s better for everybody if we try to coordinate and collaborate on this.”

Typically they’re quite friendly and they’ll say, “Sure, we’ll find out who that is and connect you in,” and then you have a door opener because when the minister’s office sends a note to an official and it says, “I’d like you to meet with so-and-so. We met with them and they’re interested in talking about X issue,” the answer to that request is always, “Yes, certainly, I’ll get right on it.”

Often officials are very busy. They’ve got a lot of work on their plate so it’s hard for them to squeeze the stuff in, but if the request or the introduction comes from the minister’s office you’re very likely to at least have the door open for that first conversation.

Ige Egal:

You talked a lot about priorities and knowing what the government’s priorities are. How do you go about finding out what those priorities are?

Liz Mulholland:

It’s a good question. And they do change. I would say the first thing is, most governments actually run during the election with a platform, so read their platform. Once a government is sworn in often ministers will be given a mandate letter by their premier or prime minister that says here’s what you are responsible for and here are the accomplishments or commitments that I expect you to move forward on, and they’re very specific.

Some governments make those letters public, some don’t. If they do publish them, google mandate letters for that government and then read the ones for the ministries that are relevant to your work, and that will give you a very good handle.

Those ministers are being told that’s your job to deliver on these commitments, and that means everybody in their ministry or department has to be working on those too. They’re very important. They really shape the priorities of the government.

Then finally I would just google the minister in question and speeches and often you can download news releases. And you can see what they’re talking about and what they say they care about.

Ige Egal:

You touched on this in your last answer about relationship building. But what if your priority or ask is not part of the government’s mandate, they’re not really thinking about it.

Liz Mulholland:

I think usually it’s an exercise in being a little creative. We all think about the stuff we work on in a certain way. We have a framework for how we think about it, language and vocabulary. But often if we stretch our mind a little bit we can find some way to connect it to what the government cares about.

If a government comes in and says I care about reducing taxes or cutting government waste or helping struggling people to join the middle class or what it is, then you can think about, well, are any of the things we’re doing helping with any of that. Even if we may not see that as the main feature of our work, it may be that they do help those things along.

Sometimes you just need to recast how you think about what you’re doing and find a way to connect it to that. Even if you can’t find a way to connect it there’s still virtue in going in and saying, “Look, there’s an important issue. It’s your responsibility to do something about it.” But it’s just much easier to get them to engage if you’ve shown that you care about their priorities too.

Ige Egal:

Now we’ve just had an election and we saw earlier in our poll that 67 per cent of people who tuned in today are dealing with the provincial government. I really like the way that you framed how do you keep your ball in play.

So in a situation where you’re having a transition in government, how do you keep your ball in play?

Liz Mulholland:

I guess it depends if you’re interested in sustaining programs or if you’re working more on the policy level. If you have a program, it’s a good idea to reach out to the newly elected MPPs. If your MPP has changed you would want to set up a visit, bring them to see your agency, give them a tour, talk to them about how it aligns with what they care about. Now, they may be an opposition MPP or they might be a government one, so tailor your message accordingly.

Then I think it’s a good idea to check in with the ministry officials if you get funding from the government to say, is there any change that you anticipate, is there anything we should know? They’ll usually know that they’re going to get those inquiries and they’ll be ready to reply to that.

I think on the policy level you really need to do an analysis of what you’re trying to advance and how it aligns or doesn’t with the government’s priorities, and then you need to make a judgment on whether you can reframe and do a bit of a pivot.

Or maybe whether you want to stop working on this issue because it’s really not a good time and switch your attention to this issue where there may be more opportunity to work with the current government on it, and then think about how you reframe the issue and language that really connects with the new government.

Ige Egal:

The next question I have has to do with the nature of work in the non-profit sector where this is really important work, but if you are part of an organization that has strapped resources, how do you do this and how do you do it in a meaningful way?

Liz Mulholland:

This is a big question and this is where you get to hear my confession which is, even though I know how we’re supposed to do this in theory and I’m the one, the expert giving everybody the webinar, we often don’t live up to everything I’ve told you because we don’t have enough people in our organization to do this work. We have a lot on our plate just like everybody who’s seeing this webinar does.

You do the best you can, first of all. But secondly, I think there are lots of people who have worked in government, either at the political level, the civil service level, or both, who are people who love to volunteer and love to share their knowledge about government and can help you on this.

It’s really a good idea to look through your networks and say, is there anybody we know who has expertise working in a minister’s office, or a past experience, or has had a policy role in the civil service, et cetera, that we can enlist as a volunteer or build a group of them, who could help guide us, shape us, sometimes wield the pen and help fix a briefing note for us and turn it into something?

Even if they don’t write it from scratch, they can do an edit on it. But a little bit of expert help goes an awful long way in this when you’re doing advocacy work. I really think you want to build your pool of volunteers to have that kind of expertise, and there are a lot of former public servants who’ve retired who would love to get involved and help organizations on the issues they care about.

Ige Egal:

Excellent. We’re going to turn now to questions from our audience. One of the first ones we’re getting is about assistant deputy ministers and whether or not they’re going to be able to maintain their positions in the new government.

Liz Mulholland:

Okay. Typically what happens in a new government is they will appoint a new head of the cabinet or a head of the civil service or Clerk of the Privy Council in federal lingo. And that’s the prime minister’s prerogative or the premier’s. Then they will also appoint new deputies.

Sometimes they just move the old deputy ministers around and sometimes they retire a bunch and they put in new ones. So it really depends on how dramatic a change the government is looking for and whether they have the right people to put into those roles. Sometimes it can be quite a dramatic shift.

Typically that doesn’t go right down to the assistant deputy minister level. It stops in our system at the deputy minister level. Now that doesn’t mean that when you get a new deputy minister that there isn’t a bit of reshuffling sometimes in their own department or that things open up and people move around.

But it would be most unusual, and I’m not an actual scholar on this so I don’t know if it’s actually a done thing or not, but I think it would be unusual for them to tackle assistant deputy ministers as well.

Ige Egal:

Great. And how long should we wait before we approach the new government?

Liz Mulholland:

Great question. Typically there is a transition period when the new government is elected. The new cabinet ministers need to be sworn in. In Ontario that’s going to take place on June 29th. Then new ministers need time to not just find the loo but actually staff their offices. They have to hire a whole bunch of people to work in their office, and then they also need to get briefed.

They’re coming into a ministry or a department that’s very big, has lots of different responsibilities that they often don’t know anything about, and nobody would. So they need three weeks or so to get briefed up by their officials.

This is usually treated as sort of what they call a “blackout period” where they don’t do meetings with external groups unless it’s something really critical and urgent like there’s an emergency and the officials really focus on preparing and doing the briefings for the minister and answering questions and helping the minister staff get organized and up and running. Then they open the door for business.

Probably with this new Ontario government the earliest you would want to approach them and ask for a meeting would be in mid-August.

Ige Egal:

And in the interim how important would you say social media is in terms of engaging with them?

Liz Mulholland:

It depends. Every new government comes in and the first thing they want to do is show you they’re a new government of action and they’re not going to wait to fulfill their promises. And this is regardless of party, honestly.

They’ll always make a few high-profile announcements, but apart from that it’s pretty much don’t go out and say anything publicly please until you’re briefed up. Even on social media I think it’s probably the same thing.

Ige Egal:

Should your communication strategy change when you’re working with multiple ministries? And then a follow-up question to that as well would be, how does that strategy get adopted with resident-led unincorporated groups?

Liz Mulholland:

Okay, let’s start with the first and then I’ll come back to the second one. When you have multiple ministries that are involved, it’s a much more challenging exercise. I call this cat herding, like at a PhD level.

Typically my advice would be, if you can get support from the ministers’ offices of the different ministries, try and suggest gently to them that one of them take responsibility for coordinating with the other ministers’ offices and helping to align and move things forward. You need somebody internal in the government to help herd the cats and to help drive your issue forward.

Now if they’re not on board it’s much harder and then you have to do what I call the bumblebee routine – going from flower to flower to flower to flower, getting them informed on what’s going on, telling them what the premier’s office told you and what the finance minister’s office told you and this ministry told you and then what the minister’s office upstairs told you, and saying now what can we do with that and where should we go with that.

And you just have to keep going around and going around and going around until eventually you’ve brought them into more alignment. At a certain point the balance tips and the government says, “Yeah, we should do this. Now we really do need to get coordinated to figure out how.”

Often that’s where somebody in the premier’s office can be very helpful or a finance minister’s office because they sit in the centre and part of their job, when the government decides to do something, is to make sure it’s all coordinated and we’re all doing it together in the right way. That’s one way to think about it.

Sometimes the officials will do that coordination role too and help drive it at their level, but they can’t coordinate the ministers’ offices. It needs to be somebody at the political level who does that.

Now the second question was…

Ige Egal:

How do you adapt that strategy to resident-led unincorporated groups?

Liz Mulholland:

I think the strategy is always the same. It’s just more challenging when you don’t have resources and a formal kind of organizational entity that may be more recognizable than government, or bigger.

One thing I’d suggest is obviously if you’re resident-led you need to spend more time with your own people building consensus. But I’d really suggest trying to harness resources and work that are done by other groups who may have more resources, maybe have staff with more technical expertise on things.

And really start to say how can we feed in our unique messages or needs or opinions and advice and insights into a process where multiple groups are playing on an issue, rather than trying to shoulder the whole burden yourself. Because it’s very hard when you’re small and grassroots to move the dial on a tough issue by yourself.

Ige Egal:

We’ll go back to something that you mentioned as part of the process in preparing and also meeting with the ministers and that’s facts. But in this current political climate –

Liz Mulholland:


Ige Egal:

Yes. Is there a place for qualitative research and data?

Liz Mulholland:

Yes, I think qualitative is factual too. It’s just a different kind of data, but it’s still data. You find this more when you’ve actually built a relationship and you’ve kind of been working for a longer time with ministry. They start to really value the fact that you can bring qualitative and frontline insights into the picture because often they’re working purely with statistical data and they don’t have many opportunities to get that qualitative dimension.

Often they’re really excited to have somebody who can partner with them who can bring that more nuanced view and bring that more detailed picture into play. And in terms of working out why certain things aren’t working well or figuring out ahead of time, “Oh, that might have consequences that we don’t like. Now that we know this about the context or the people that we’re supporting, maybe we need to do it differently.”

I think there’s value in spending a lot of time connecting with partners at the front line who tell us we’re starting to see this in our participants and the people that we’re working with. It’s new. Something’s going on there. We can feed that back to government and say, “There’s an issue that’s cropping up. You need to know about it. We don’t have statistical evidence on it. We don’t know how big it is, but it’s starting to crop up in a whole bunch of places, so the odds are this is probably going to be a bigger problem.”

Ige Egal:

And is that where you lean on that sort of inspire mode where you’re talking about the stories that make that emotional connection?

Liz Mulholland:

Sometimes the stories make the difference between, “Oh, let’s have…” to going, “Oh, my gosh.”

One example is we work a lot with the Canada Revenue Agency around helping people to access their benefits and how we can improve that. CRA has certain tools in its toolkit and it’s doing all sorts of things to try and help low income Canadians get their benefits.

But they also have to verify that people are eligible, and we found real issues to the verification process. People were getting thrown off their benefits, even though they were eligible. They just couldn’t provide documentation because the rules were too onerous.

It was kind of an issue that was acknowledged but when we actually had a frontline agency start describing actual cases and people losing their children because their benefits got cut off, you could just feel a palpable shift over the phone and in the tone of people’s voice and you really felt like now they were super engaged in solving this problem.

Before they were engaged but now they’re super engaged. They now appreciate, “Oh my god, what if those are my children,” you know? That emotional connection really does make a big difference.

Ige Egal:

Switching gears a little bit and looking at the municipal government. Are the same political dynamics at play in municipal governments or would you take a different approach?

Liz Mulholland:

I have to say I’m not as experienced working in the municipal governments but I’ll take a shot at that. I would say that the forces I’ve described are pretty much the same for most politicians and the dynamics and the general rules apply.

I think in municipal government there’s less bureaucracy. Things can often happen faster, but you also have to – depending on province by province what the powers are of municipal governments and their decision-making and how powerful the mayor is or not – you’re often dealing with the fact that you really have to get support from a whole bunch of councillors to get anything through.

It’s not like you can go to a minister or just go to the mayor’s office. You typically have to build enough support in council. But often the people who can advise you best on that are – get the officials bought in on something and then they can often help you understand the dynamics on council, or you can just find some friends on council and have them try and build those coalitions if they become champions for your issue.

I think there are different ways in the door on that one, but I would say our one experience of trying to engage, we realized that city councils can get quite polarized. In Toronto we had a council that was very polarized between left and right and pretty much they said the advice from the civil servants was, “If you go in with one councillor that means half of council automatically will be against you and what you’re proposing because you’re with that team.” So I said, “Maybe it’s better not to go in at the political level and just work with us,” and it did prove to be the right advice.

Ige Egal:

We’ve got two last questions. How important are relationships with civil servants federally and provincially?

Liz Mulholland:

If you’re in this for the long term those are really important relationships. What you need to realize is people move around in government, so never burn your bridge with anybody. Even if they make you crazy sometimes, always keep it cool, be gracious, try to be understanding and empathetic because guaranteed whoever it is that’s driving you nuts is going to show up again in your life.

The other thing I’d say is civil servants often marry each other. Never, ever criticize another civil servant to another civil servant because I did that once and it was their wife I was talking about. Just assume that they’re probably married to somebody else that you’re dealing with.

Ige Egal:

Nice things.

Liz Mulholland:

Just giving you the benefit of my hard-won experience here. But it is always really important. Politicians don’t do anything on their own. Everything needs to be implemented through the civil service. If your politician says yes, and the civil servant is dead set against it, they can make sure you’re on the slow train to China.

Ige Egal:

Finally, and really quickly, is there one thing that the non-profit sector really does well in terms of communications?

Liz Mulholland:

We’re really good at putting the people face on things. But we’re not always great at taking the opportunity frame, and the positive frame, and the aspirational frame versus the problem frame. So I think that’s one area where we all have work to do.

Ige Egal:

Thank you very much. I know there’s a number of other questions, and I’ve got questions as well but our time is limited and we’re just right at the end.

It’s been a really great conversation and I’ve learned a lot about this process. I know when I go back into my work that there’s a number of things I need to do in terms of preparing and looking at it as a milestone and a point in time. So thank you very much for that.

Liz Mulholland:

Thank you very much.

Ige Egal:

Thank you everybody for tuning in today. We’ll see you again.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.


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