For many, the thought of trying to navigate the maze of government is daunting. Many associations try to engage the government without understanding the legislative process or how officials and the government make decisions. Even sophisticated, well-oiled organizations sometimes stumble along the way.
Working in the field of government relations for decades has allowed us to identify and gain a good understanding of what mistakes associations commonly make. This is a look at the top 10 mistakes we see associations make on a regular basis. Many associations strive to avoid or recover from these mistakes, and that is why so many associations and organizations have sought our advice and help.
1. No Engagement
This is very common. Associations in this instance do not regularly engage government. Associations know they should be engaging the government but are often so distracted with other association work that this task just sits on the “to-do-list” – that is until something goes terribly wrong. Some organizations trust government to run efficiently and always act in their best interests. The truth is that government acts upon the information it has available, if you do not engage, you lose agency and will often be at a disadvantage to your stakeholder competitors.
2. No Long-Term Plan
Not creating a long-term engagement plan with clearly defined reasonable targets is actually one of the biggest problems associations confront. Most organizations will draft a short, medium and long-term strategic plan but there is often very little government engagement or is the thinnest part of the plan. It’s called “government relations” for a reason. We all have those friends who only call when they need something. You don’t like it and neither does the government. You need to develop long-term meaningful relationships with the right people so that you may employ and deploy these relationships if the need arises. They are also a great help in gathering useful intelligence. We always counsel clients that a low intensity engagement over the long run will always serve you better. It’s more cost effective and will let you sleep better at night.
3. Wrong Spokesperson and Champions.
Associations need to choose a spokesperson wisely. They must be able to articulate the message well and portray the image you want to leave. When you engage the government it needs to be often and over a long period of time to be the most effective. If you keep changing the spokesperson you risk having to start the relationship all over again.
“Champions” are the government officials that are supportive of your cause and are willing to put some effort into helping you. Often this is very helpful and is in fact what you are trying to find and conscript as you engage. The mistake occurs when the group depends on the wrong champions or one where their influence is waning. Mistakes such as the champion is not respected in his or her own caucus or they are not from the governing party are the most common.
4. Poor Timing
The worst error here is getting engaged when the fight is already done. The key is the earlier you get engaged the better. It’s the law of diminishing returns. With more time you will have access to better tools and more opportunity to implement your engagement plan. And it costs less. Typically when the government blindsides an association (because they haven’t been engaging) with an initiative that negatively affect their members the following actions are taken. First an organization will try to figure out what the implications are, then call an emergency meeting and engage its own members about the issues. By the time they agree that they need help and find and hire some government relations expertise, get a plan together, fix any underling problems, engage and train their membership and spokespeople – they are late to the game and the fight is already over. The result is they have spent or overspent their government relations budget on this exercise so they stop engaging the government and go dark again – until the next issue.
5. Engaging Only the Political Side
Many people think that going straight to the top is the way to go. There exists a perception amongst many that getting to the Premier should be your goal. Many organizations expend great resources trying to accomplish this goal and then fall flat. The decision making structure has the Premier usually deferring to her Ministers for most issues. The Ministers heavily depend on the civil service for advice. There is a saying in government relations that “Nine times out of ten Ministers side with their officials.” Do you want a 10% or 90% chance of success?
6. Engaging Only the Bureaucratic Side
So here we have the flip side. Here is an example we see play out often. The association has a good relationship with one civil servant – placing all its efforts and trust in a mid-level civil official with whom they often interact. When you only engage with one or a small number of civil officials whom have responsibility for your file, all too often this allows them to do their job well, which includes managing you. This diminishes your power as a stakeholder and exposes you to risk. What is surprising to know is that some civil servants may even have “a good relationship with your organization” as a personal performance measurement.
7. Wrong “Ask”
The “ask” is what you want the government official to do. This is where we see most associations falter and it’s one of the most important aspects of your government relations strategy. Problems seem to develop when associations develop their “asks” based solely on what they want instead of what government needs. This is a formula that creates an unwinnable situation even before you speak with government. Let’s look at the different types of “ask” mistakes:
- Don’t Ask for Anything – you finally get your meeting with the government then describe eloquently your association and its issues and at the end you just get up and leave. The official is polite and smiled through the whole exercise but will not meet with you again.
- Laundry List – Often once a meeting is set, a whole laundry list of requests of government is made. It’s like asking for everything in a long-term plan in one fell swoop. This is the case of having too many priorities means having none.
- Asking for the Moon – As you can guess this is an issue of scale. If the government is facing budgetary pressures and downsizing, asking for a new initiative that will cost multi-millions may not get support.
- Just Fix It – The worst of the bunch and one that seems to aggravate government the most. This is where the association outlines the problem and simply suggest it’s the government job to figure out how to fix it without suggesting how. This is also dangerous because the fix the government chooses might not be the one you like. An instance where the cure is worse than the malady.
8. Bad Pitch
Of course we are talking about the sales pitch here so the statements and promises that someone makes in an attempt to persuade someone else to buy something. Quite simply, it’s your message and delivery. The mistake occurs when associations make a pitch that flies in the face of or goes in the totally opposite direction than the government is pursuing. In this instance the “ask” is easily dismissed and is not even considered. The key is to use the government message and intended goals and align it with your own. Use their words and goals to demonstrate that your “ask” is valid and worthy of consideration. The government regularly make statements about what is important and the direction they wish to advance and what they want to accomplish. This is done through the Throne Speeches, public statements and even the budget.
9. Ignoring Opposition
Do not ignore opposition parties… especially in a minority government! This is why we work with all three parties. They can help or hinder your plans. A plan supported by government can easily fall off the rails if the opposition band together. An effective strategy can be to arm opposition parties with supportive information or even draft of questions to ask government.
10. Not Celebrating Successes
Just accept the win! We have all seen announcements from different groups that pronounce, “This government announcement is a step in the right direction but the government needs to…” If you ask for A, B and C and the government gives you A – take the win. At least celebrate it on the day of the release. This frustrates government partners and diminishes your chance of future success. If you truly get what you want, make sure to explore every avenue to celebrate it. It will create such goodwill that you can tap into for future “asks”. The government will want to partner with you and seek you out.