Engaging with Government: How to Earn Influence.

The first of three blogs from The Pitfalls and Opportunities in Political Campaigning. 

Michael Clarke. Image first published on civilsociety.co.uk.

Michael Clarke. Image first published on civilsociety.co.uk.

In the first of three blogs on effective lobbying, former civil servant Michael Clarke offers some guidance on building relationships with the next Government – whoever wins the election.

Tony Blair once said the first rule of politics is there are no rules: you make your own luck. Consummate politician that he was, he might have added: but you still need to understand the field of play.

For charities, there are essentially two approaches to engagement with Government: inside the tent, or outside.

Staying outside, from where you can launch high-profile campaigns through the media, adverts and social media, has its compensations. It raises your profile and may energise your supporters and donors. And sometimes it changes policy.

But there are risks to this approach:

  • Advertising campaigns can be expensive
  • A successful campaign probably needs media support – and not all policy issues are attractive to a news outlet looking for a campaign
  • Your media campaign partner may get bored long before the campaign has succeeded

But the biggest risk is that it just won’t work: Government departments are used to being criticised by charities, and they have thick skins. They shrug off most attacks and move on, waiting for the next brickbat, hoping it is aimed at a rival department rather than themselves.

The alternative approach is getting ‘inside the tent,’ so you become a trusted stakeholder, part of the policymaking process, rather than an external campaigner trying to change decisions that have already been taken.

Charities often complain that they aren’t able to get on the ‘inside track’ without contacts, or the money to cultivate them. I often hear from them that it’s other organisations that have that influence.

But there are ways to do it.

Your first task must be to decide what it is you want from government. You may already have a clear idea of a change in policy you would like to see, or you may simply want to get a better understanding of the likely direction of future policy.

Having decided what you want, you must identify who in government has the key to this – is it something the Secretary of State would be involved in? Or is it likely to be handled by more junior officials. Based on this analysis, you can plan the best way to begin engagement – would it be a letter to the Secretary of State, or an invitation to a junior minister to make a speech at an event?

Over time, your aim should be to build a relationship with those in government, both ministers and non-political civil servants. And that relationship must be based on mutual benefit. So what can you offer government, with its immense resources? The surprising truth is that you can offer something very valuable – information.

The guilty secret of central government is that it knows very little about what’s really going on.

Ministers are generally appointed to cover subjects of which they have no previous experience, and are only in the job a couple of years before being reshuffled. Their civil servants, too, move jobs every two years or so.

The most influential, running ministers’ private offices, will be fast-streamers, recruited straight out of university. They are undoubtedly bright, but it is a racing certainty they will lack first-hand experience of the issues they are now grappling with.

So neither ministers nor civil servants have much genuine understanding of the issues you are concerned with. They do, of course, have official statistics and performance reports from the services they oversee. But statistics are often old, month or years out of date. In addition, they are often adjusted or ‘gamed’ before they reach the minister, to demonstrate targets are being met. So the heart of government struggles to get a true picture of the outside world and whether its policies are working.

That is where you can help. As a charity, you have access to the real world, either through the services you deliver or the contact you have with your members and supporters, united around an issue or theme. If you can capture these experiences, analyse them, and turn them into evidence-based insights into how to improve policy, you have something ministers and their advisers will value.

How you capture your experience will depend on your structure: you may have case files which can be analysed to identify trends, or you may be able to survey your staff, members or supporters. And your analytical capability will depend on your size, but the more you can objectively quantify the scale of an issue, the more chance you have of getting ministerial attention.

As well as identifying a problem, you should propose a solution – a costed, affordable, practical one, not pie-in-the-sky. The purpose of your engagement with Government should be to change policy or practice, not to prove you can dream the purest dreams in your sector about how the world would look if money was unlimited.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for extra spending – simply that you must make an evidence-based case for the need and the benefit the money will bring.

By bringing evidence-based insights into challenges out in the real world, and costed, practical proposals to address them, you maximise the chances of being accepted onto the coveted list of officially-recognised stakeholders, whom ministers should meet regularly and officials must consult and inform about policy development. You will be seen as a serious organisation, a trusted partner of the Department, not a ‘nutter’ or one of the ‘usual suspects’. This position ‘inside the tent’ gives you far more influence over policy than any amount of posters or Twitter campaigns.

Of course, getting on the ‘inside track’ doesn’t make you a lapdog of Government. You are still free to disagree with policy proposals. You will have the advantage of knowing about them early, and therefore have a better chance of heading them off. You can still launch an angry, public denunciation of the plans. But now you will have an opportunity to give the minister a private warning that, regrettably, you have no choice but to ‘go loud’.

The knowledge that his policy will be publicly opposed by a former ally may be enough to persuade him to send the new policy back for one more review. That’s Whitehall-speak for dumping it.

Michael Clarke is a former civil servant at the Department of Health, and before that was a Daily Mail journalist. He is Managing Director of communications consultancy Thames Advisors. He is speaking at a breakfast seminar on engaging with government in London on March 27th. (http://actionplanning.co.uk/events-workshop/11499/Effective-Advocacy-aft…)