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Seven deadly sins of government engagement

Sep 19, 2019

Fifty Acres Head of Engagement, Andrew Blyberg, shares some of the most common mistakes not for profits make when trying to influence politicians.

I spent more than five years as a political staffer and now, as head of engagement at Fifty Acres, I help not for profits pursue their policy and funding agendas with government.

Over the years I have seen countless well-meaning organisations make the same mistakes when trying to influence politicians.

So here are the most common mistakes I’ve seen over the years:

  1. Asking for too much time. Lots of organisations think they need to ask for an hour to fully brief an MP on all the details of their issue but in a busy sitting week that is a perfect excuse for a diary manager to reject your meeting request. If you’re prepared and concise, you need much less time than you think. One of the best stakeholder meetings I had when I worked in Parliament went for seven minutes and it was impossible to turn down.
  2. Expecting an MP to read your 50-page report. Most not for profits have an active policy team that prepare comprehensive reports on important issues with detailed recommendations. But MPs are time-poor and if you get a meeting, you are likely one of seven they are having that day, so summarise your case and key asks on one or two pages –  otherwise it won’t be read.
  3. Having a laundry list of requests. Many charities and advocacy organisations have a broad suite of policies they would like to change but they struggle to prioritise. Strategy is about knowing what you’re not going to do. So if you can’t choose one or two issues to focus on, you don’t have a government relations strategy – and you’re not likely to succeed.
  4. Thinking change happens all at once. One of the most common mistakes is thinking the complex policy reform your comprehensive report recommends should form your key asks when you meet a politician. Big reform doesn’t happen all at once so the trick is to make small, tangible requests that will help put your big reform on the agenda and build momentum for change down the road.
  5. Assuming support will lead to action. As mentioned earlier, politicians are time poor so even if you’ve won them over it doesn’t mean they will do anything to help. So make it as easy as possible for an MP to take action – even if it means doing all the work for them. If you want them to ask a question in Parliament or write a letter to their own party leadership, have a draft ready to give them. And if you get them to agree to take a specific action, don’t forget to follow up.
  6. Being afraid of looking political. The single most common and misguided sentence I’ve heard from not-for-profit organisations is that they don’t want to get political. Politics is the currency politicians trade in so the easiest way to gain leverage is to communicate the political benefit for supporting you or the cost of not. This may be as simple as reminding the politician of how many supporters you have, where they are and what you are going to tell them about each party or MP.
  7. Being easily deterred. It may take years to build momentum and support for change. Achieving significant policy reform is hard and vested interests may try to knock you off course so it’s important to take a long-term view and trust in your strategy. And you never know when the political planets may align to create the perfect opportunity so you have to be resilient and continue to lay the groundwork over time.

Avoiding these common pitfalls will put you ahead of the vast majority of other organisations and get you that much closer to achieving your agenda. But if you want the support of an experienced team, get in contact with Fifty Acres and we’ll help you navigate the process from start to finish.

This article was originally published on Pro Bono Australia

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