Want to influence government policy?

Sheena Ireland
Sun 17 Mar

It’s not just about narrative, relationships can be key!

As we move towards a federal election (and with campaigning in full swing) I’m often asked how organisations can get on the front foot with their government relations strategy to engage the government and influence policy and programs. My simple answer is ‘build a relationship’.

This doesn’t mean contacting them once or sending one tweet, it means proactively reaching out. Give ministers and departments examples of stories, facts and figures that relate to their area of work. Help them understand the industry or community they are developing policy and programs for. Don’t assume they know the same information that you know, the secret to effective long-term communication is knowing what level of knowledge your audience has, what further knowledge they need and being sure to educate with empathy, not aggression.

You could start by offering informal and formal briefings on your industry and key issues. Or you could invite ministers, advisors or government officials to relevant events and send them email updates. Be sure to make every update relevant and informative — you want to be known as a good source of knowledge, not an annoying spammer. If you’re holding an event that is designed to to engage ministers, consider holding the event in Parliament House during a sitting week. Make it as easy for ministers to attend as possible. And make sure you consult someone who knows the ins and outs of arranging events in Parliament House — don’t be the person who ends up in a last-minute panic because you weren’t fully aware of how to get your event items into Parliament House.

 

With Government departments, find out the area and people who work on matters affecting your industry and make sure you are engaging directly with the people you need to, not simply through an ‘info’ email address. Public servants are there to help you. Don’t simply demand information from them. Have a conversation and express your appreciation for their time. Like you, they are really busy. Despite assertions that public servants simply sit around, they don’t. They work hard and they care, so apply some empathy and show some care for them. Building a relationship based on information sharing can help you when a policy matter that affects your business or industry comes out. Having a relationship can mean you are able to pick up the phone and express your concerns to a Minister’s office or Government department. Also, don’t be too shy to send a positive note acknowledging their great work in providing benefit to your industry when things go your way.

Most of the time, your relationship with ministers will be through advisors. Be sure to know which advisor is responsible for the industry you are in. While engaging Ministers will depend on your industry and the work you do. Some of the advice I give industry bodies and charities is to remember to engage more than simply the Minister responsible for your industry. In today’s world, independent senators and MPs can hold the deciding votes for a piece of legislation. It is important they understand your issues, and how these are relevant to your target MPs and senators. Keep an open dialogue with them and help them understand why your issues matter.

 

As we have seen for some years now, ministers rotate more frequently than they used to. So, while you must get the Minister(s) responsible for your area of work up to speed on your issues, you can’t solely focus on them. Because with ministerial reshuffles being a normal occurrence, you could be briefing a new minister sooner than you think. If you’ve spent some time getting your messages out to the range of parliamentarians, it increases the likelihood that you’ll get a head start on briefing the next Minister.

It’s also important to invest time in knowing and building relationships with relevant backbenchers. See what committees they are on and what ‘friends of’ groups they are part of. If the committee or group is relevant to you, do your research on the MP and reach out. Engage them by letting them know how an issue affects their constituency, or how you help their constituency. Find an emotional connection. If you’re looking for Government grants and support, find the best hubs to approach for information. Business.gov.au is a great hub of information and the staff behind it are passionate about helping businesses connect with programs they could gain benefit from. So never be afraid to approach them. The Government can help in so many ways.

And, if you’re government engagement is part of your business, consider engaging a consultant to help you develop and review your strategy when governments change or key issues arise. When we work in an industry we, rightly so, are embedded in the issues we are working on. Having a consultant lift you out of this internal view can help you develop a robust strategy and plan that can get you the relationships and results you need.