Six Principles of Effective Government Relations 



Spring 2008 - (InBrief Spring 2008)

InBrief Spring 2008

Let me begin with a short passage from The Art of War by Sun Tzu: "Those who do not know the plans of competitors cannot prepare alliances. Those who do not know the lie of the land cannot manoeuvre their forces. Those who do not have local guides cannot take advantage of the ground."

Much of those keen observations also apply to the field of government relations ("GR"). That is, the political and bureaucratic landscape is, by its very nature, meandering and disorganized. The task of a GR professional is to help negotiate and advocate throughout this terrain while leveraging relationships for the benefit of his/her client. In so doing, these six basic principles will help create effective lobbying and avoid pitfalls:

1. Registration

Accountability is a sign of the times. It is a means to recognize that lobbying is a legitimate democratic activity and that the public ought to know who is attempting to influence public officials. Before an elected official will even schedule a meeting to hear your point of view, s/he will very likely consult the Lobbyist Registry. Therefore, be sure you are duly registered. If you are paid to communicate with a federal public office holder, then you must register pursuant to the Lobbyists Registration Act .

2. PPP: Patience, Perseverance and Professionalism

Getting a commitment is the ultimate goal in any lobbying effort. As such, it is integral to recognize that this takes time. In effect, lobbying is like mining with hammers: both the lobbyist and client must remain patient and persevere to obtain success. If a decision maker is pushed too early and too hard it may destroy hopes of cooperation with that decision maker in the future.

If success is not obtainable on a particular matter, remain professional. Never burn bridges; never patronize and never threaten. You never know when you may have to knock on that same door again. A particular decision maker may be of assistance to you on another matter in the future or with respect to another client's interests.

3. Keep It Simple

Your advocacy documents should not be complex. Although public officials may have time to analyse detailed reports, elected officials want messages to be as short and simple as possible. Politicians do not have time to review lengthy documents in great detail. They want a general overview and are looking for a document that is full of substance, yet brief. Moreover, provide the Government with flexible, alternative means of obtaining your objective. The more rigid your objective, the less chance of success you will have.

Be forthright and candid. Do not overstate your case, as this goes to the heart of your credibility, now and in the future. As a U.S. Governor once told me, "You only get one chance to mislead me." Therefore, make sure you never use it! Work from objective data and prepare appropriately. Know your opposition's view point and be prepared to fairly represent it whilst advocating your point of view. Honesty and integrity cannot be overstated.

4. GR Is Essentially Soft Advocacy

In a pluralistic society such as ours, the exercise of power often shifts with the changing social and cultural dynamics. Such shifts depend on the issues of the day and how different segments of society mobilize and utilize their resources. Elected and public officials very often have only a limited knowledge of the industry for which they create policy. GR affects the form and content of such policy by facilitating two-way dialogue with different levels of government.

GR is not the sale of relationships. Shared ideology only really matters on the macro issues. Decision makers have personal contacts from various sides of issues. A phone call rarely, if ever, rectifies an issue with the government.

5. Never Underestimate the Influence of Political Staff and the Bureaucracy

Delay, diversion and redirection are all techniques used by politicians and bureaucrats to avoid commitment. Just as GR professionals have techniques for dealing with decision makers, so does the government. Beware of passing the buck. Politicians can blame the bureaucrats and bureaucrats can blame the politicians for the lack of advancement of a file. Remember the PPP principle.

6. Politics Truly Does Make Strange Bedfellows

There are no lasting friendships, only allies for the moment. Do not turn your back easily on making what would otherwise be viewed as a strange alliance. For example, the Marijuana Party of Canada should have been rather pleased to read a 2004 Fraser Institute report that advocated the legalization of marijuana, a measure that could likely add $2 billion to government revenue and lower levels of crime. To be sure, when trying to influence policy, one can never have too many "friends" advocating on one's behalf.

Some Final Thoughts

A pluralistic society compels proactive participation in the political process to effect change or even to maintain the course. Failure to act will likely lead to an imbalance in power and benefits derived by the government. If one interest group in society does not exercise its rights and privileges, then another group fills the void and attempts to influence the government's agenda. This does not necessarily mean that a group needs to fight every battle waged on Parliament Hill; however, if its forces (GR professionals) are not already on the ground maintaining lines of communication and goodwill, then others are more likely to be in a stronger position to effectively influence power. In other words, if you want to have your issues heard and acted upon by public officials, then you need to be politically active. Arm-chair quarterbacks are never heard out on the grid-iron.

This article appeared in InBrief Spring 2008.