Monthly Archives: November 2014

How’s Your Rat King?

From Althaus, Bridgman and Davis

From Althaus, Bridgman and Davis

Where is your issue at, inside the public service?  Whatever you want from Government, you must know that.

Best-practice policy making in Government resembles this policy cycle* – theoretically – and you can identify where an issue is up to, and intervene appropriately.

After Althaus, Bridgman and Davis

After Althaus, Bridgman and Davis

In reality, it’s more like this, particularly when both public service and politicians are actively involved.


The Rat King

By Selbymay (Own work CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Or it’s like this, a Rat King.

If you don’t know where the tails are tied together in your rat-king, you can’t know how to un-knot them.

There may be little value in talking with someone who’s already had their say on it, for example.  Or from-scratch advocating option A if option B has already been recommended to the DG.

Depending on which policy-cycle stage a proposal is at, different interventions, urgency, and tactics are, obviously, to be considered.


*  From Catherine Althaus, Peter Bridgman and Glyn Davis (2013) The Australian Policy Handbook, 5th edition

Who’s Your Best Lobbyist?

be yourselfMost lobbyists don’t lobby often. And that’s because they often shouldn’t.

A lobbying job is always about selling something: getting someone in Government on board with a product, a bid, a project, a policy change, a supplier.

No-one smart in Government will easily buy in to any product, policy or whatever it is, unless they have faith in the proponent.

And no-one smart in Government will easily have faith in the proponent – company, entrepreneur, environment group, whoever you are – until they’ve first taken the proponent’s measure, and assessed their good faith and credibility.

A lobbyist can’t be a substitute, can’t deliver that.

Often, you have to do some of your own lobbying, to make everything credible. In those circumstances, all your lobbyist can do is help get you, and the process, ready.

There are exceptions, though – more of which, another post, later!

“Get me the Premier!”

demandingMany prospective clients start by saying “I need you to get me a meeting with the Premier”. Or it might be the Prime Minister, or a particular Minister.

They’re usually frustrated at blockages, and they are nearly always wrong about how to deal with it.

Our first response to that kind of proposition is “Why?  The Minister has an appointments Secretary – you don’t need us for that.”  (Or maybe we just think that, rather than saying it out loud.)

Talking with a Minister can be useful if there is a decision being made that is against the Government’s interests or policy, but that is rarely the case.  And the Minister is rarely the real decision maker.

It’s important to focus on dealing with the real decision maker.

The most common cause of a demand for Ministerial intervention is poor communications – public servants who think they are communicating effectively with business, or business people who think they are communicating effectively with public servants: both driven by systems and imperatives that seem incompatible.

In our experience both ends of the engagement are often mistaken – they don’t understand one another well, at all – and engaging a lobbyist who understands both ends of the discussion can help the parties translate and communicate.

It’s often enough a junior or mid-level public servant who is dealing with your issue, and it is normally far better to sort out the issue with them, rather than making enemies for life by calling down the Minister upon them.

A public servant (and their managers) on the receiving end of a Ministerial inquiry, don’t think to themselves “I must change this decision” – rather, they lock into justifying it, often making things worse for you.  On top of that, they are distracted by the (resented) workload burden of having to respond quickly to a Ministerial inquiry.

A good lobbyist will be able to maximise alignment between your needs and those of the Government – both the public service and the politicians – without having to bring the Minister into things; but they can do this only if they discover why the public servants are doing as they propose, and if they can then understand how to shape the case for a change in direction.

Lobbyists who focus on introductions, and getting you in to see Ministers, sometimes don’t have very deep experience in this latter, complex, role.

Connecting with Decision-Makers

meetingWhat’s the best way to get your story to decision-makers?  Might as well ask “How long is a piece of string?”

The answer is different for every individual, for every issue, for every process.

So, you can’t just do the first thing that comes to mind – you have to research it, think about it, and plan it.

If your decision-maker is a politician, you might ask for a meeting or send a letter, or ask your local Member of Parliament to make representations on your behalf, or launch a petition, advertising campaign or protest movement.  But there are plenty of circumstances in which each of those can be counter-productive.

Never forget that in many cases it is easier to have an initial discussion with their staff than with a politician.

Because politicians often make decisions, small and large, by endorsing the recommendations in a briefing note or minute from their Department, the real decision might happen when a mid- or junior-level public servant decides what to recommend, which options to offer, and what to leave out of the briefing.

Or, your decision may rest with the public service rather than a politician – and getting information to public servants can be tricky.  You can try for a meeting, but many will resist – they’re generally under no obligation to meet with every stakeholder.  Staff in agencies that aren’t used to dealing with the public or stakeholders are much harder to connect with.

As a rule public servants will read relevant correspondence, even long material – but you must keep it focused, structured, minimalist, relevant, balanced and clear – i.e., persuasive.

Often, the biggest hurdle you’ve initially got is identifying the criteria they use for deciding a recommendation*.  The best way to get that is via a discussion, and often the best way to have a discussion is through being referred – e.g., it is very helpful to be able to say something like “The Minister’s office told me that you are the person to talk with about XYZ – can I come and see you?”

Once you know those criteria, effectively shaping your information and message becomes much easier.

Many businesses launch a program of continuous engagement with Government, so they are already networked with key decision-makers before they need to talk with them.  Alternatively, some choose occasional networking at business, professional or political events; some try to get politicians and senior public servants involved in their business – by, for example, inviting the head of a Government Department to give a speech to a boardroom lunch.  It’s much easier to get someone to hear you out, if you’ve met them previously: if your first discussion isn’t one where you are asking something of them.

For every discussion, with politician or public servant:

  • Plan the best way to get Information across
  • Know who is important in the decision-making chain
  • Ensure your information/message is short, sharp, accurate and persuasive
  • Know what you want from the discussion
  • Have your “ask” clear
  • Get agreement on a follow up – whatever that might be.

And, of course you need to get your best information, the best way, to the right decision maker, at the best time – but timing, and just what you say, is for a later posts.


*    Unless it is a public tender – and you should almost never be talking with public servants or politicians about tender issues after it has gone to the market.