By Al Etmanski
Governments in the 21st century don’t work in quite the same way as they used to. For example, politicians are pretty much under the spotlight 24 hours a day. That makes them more cautious about advancing anything new. They are also more disciplined about fulfilling the platform or agenda that got them elected. That means Cabinet Ministers and their public servants are obliged to stick to their priorities. This makes it even harder to get them to adopt any proposal that doesn’t fit with their priorities. A good example of this transparency and accountability are the mandate letters for each new federal Cabinet Minister, which were published on-line for the first time. See here for the mandate letter of the Minister of Sports and Persons With Disabilities, Carla Qualtrough. Can you imagine telling your boss, Prime Minister Trudeau that you didn’t have time to do your job because something else came up? Of course not. No boss is going to stand for that.
So where does all this leave advocates who, as society’s canaries in the mine, are identifying issues long before they surface on government’s radar?
A couple of approaches come to mind.
You can attempt to make your issue a political priority by demanding government’s attention. By ramming your issue through. By making a lot of noise. By using both mainstream and social media to rally broad based support. This can work but alas not as often as you think. And it comes at a high price. Governments today have gotten much better at ‘managing’ high profile and well-funded advocacy campaigns. They track public opinion with their core supporters to see if your campaign is registering with them. If not then be prepared to be unrelenting for a long time.
Another option is to practice strategic inquiry. Strategic inquiry is a process developed by legendary government lobbyist Sean Moore. Strategic inquiry is based on the premise that the best way to learn about the procedures, language and priorities of those you’re trying to influence is to ask them. It involves research and meetings with government officials, particularly public servants to gain an understanding of government’s stated and unstated objectives.
It’s important to listen carefully and not talk too much at these meetings. At this stage you are being curious not advocating. I recommend spending eighty percent of the time asking questions and listening and only twenty percent explaining your issue. You can sketch your proposed solution in general terms but should resist the impulse to get into details.
There are many benefits to strategic inquiry. Among them are: the key information you gather about government themes and priorities, the relationships you make and the credibility you establish. This increases the chances they might do something about your issue.
As you might expect, an important byproduct of strategic inquiry is the champions you discover. For example, when PLAN was lobbying for the RDSP we learned Jim Flaherty, the newly appointed federal finance minister, had a son with a disability. When I eventually met Minister Flaherty in 2008, it was clear he had a parent’s understanding of the purpose behind our disability savings plan proposal.
It’s hard enough to influence governments’ existing priorities. It’s even harder to convince them to set another priority. Strategic inquiry gives you the feedback to refine and reframe your proposal so that it will be seen to advance both your agenda and government’s. At the very least your existing proposal will be sharpened. It will help you describe your proposal in their language not yours. You may discover there’s more than one way to achieve your objective. Or you might modify your proposal now that you better understand the political and public service environment. It might even help you with your hard edge advocacy!