Editorial: Getting government ears
Some tips for government advocacy from a blue-ribbon panel.
By Patrick Flannery
Was on a panel hosted by the tireless Mike Wood of Ottawa Special Events this week. Mike rounded up some really great guests from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses and Sussex Strategy Group to give some advice to small businesses on government advocacy and how to get your opinions in front of your elected representatives. The discussion was pure gold.
As is often the case, the questions were sometimes more revealing than the answers. My sense was that many of the attendees had had the frustrating experience of trying to contact decision-makers and being stonewalled with automated email responses and silence. Every official gets more communications than they could ever expect to handle, especially these days with so much changing and so much not working to the satisfaction of businesses. But there were many practical tips offered for how to proceed that I’ll try to relay here.
The first of these was simply a web address: infogo.gov.on.ca. That’s the online directory for the Ontario government that not only lists all the various ministries and their departments, but also provides phone numbers and email addresses for the ministers and staff. All provinces have something similar. The panelists recommended trying to reach assistants in charge of scheduling in order to try to set up calls or meetings with MPPs and ministers, though they cautioned that ministers are pretty hard to nail down. At the federal level, the parliamentary secretary for each office is a good person to approach. The fact is, elected representatives do very little of their own scheduling and are almost out of the loop when it comes to deciding who they’re going to be talking to and what they’ll be talking about every day.
The panelists recommended getting your ask toward the top of your message and leading with your story: who you are, why the issue is important to you and how it has impacted (or will impact) you directly. These are concrete facts that can’t be easily disputed and show the representative you are coming from a place of authentic concern and not playing some political game. Presenting solutions instead of just making complaints is important, as is a generally polite and respectful tone. Venting of emotions and grand theories is discouraged. When thinking about your “ask,” one panelist suggested envisioning a Venn diagram. One circle is your interest, another circle is the public interest and the third circle is the candidate’s political interest. For best results, your proposed solution to the issue you are raising should fall in the middle where the three circles overlap. And, as always, brevity in your communications is the best policy.
The panelists recommended focusing on your local MP or MPP rather than going to ministers right away. After all, they are the ones who need your vote and the votes of your friends, customers and employees. They recommended this even if your representative was not in the governing party. Part of an Opposition member’s job is to bring their constitutent’s matters to the government’s attention, and the panelists said there’s a lot more conversation and collegiality between the Opposition and the government than it looks like in Question Period.
If you’re having trouble getting your representative’s attention, or the response is consistently one you don’t like, you can go to the media. It’s more powerful, but can cause collateral damage. The panelists recommended local print media saying it’s where all the TV and radio producers get their ideas anyway. Speaking from experience, I can tell you journalists are eager to hear your experiences and opinions. But beware: if you’ve succeeded in building a relationship with a politician and are perhaps involved in consultations with them, talking about them, their positions and any open proposals without their blessing will turn you into an enemy very quickly (unless it’s in the most glowing terms). Once you’ve gotten to that stage, media silence is best.