Five ways to improve your government engagement

Posted on 09 May 2024

By Sam Rosevear, executive director of policy, government relations and research, Philanthropy Australia

Negotiation Meeting Woman shutterstock 1043108527
NFP leaders can have a much greater influence in government with the right strategy.

Many in the philanthropic and charity sectors have tremendous policy reform ideas that would help transform Australia – from addressing climate change, to improving outcomes for our children at school, to providing more support for Australians in greatest need.

Many charities also need to approach government for funding so they can continue or expand their work.

Many charities repeatedly face an existential “funding cliff” – their government contracts are set to expire, and they can continue to do their vital work only with government funding.

But navigating government can be complex. Who do you talk to? How do you go about it? How do you go from, “I’ve got this great idea” to watching on television as the Prime Minister says, “Tonight I announce an initiative that will help transform our nation”?

This is a big topic! With limited space, I offer five top tips.

Have a clear strategy, agreed across the organisation

Sam Rosevear
Sam Rosevear, executive director of policy, government relations and research, Philanthropy Australia

Having your organisation aligned and committed to an overarching strategy that specifies key elements of your government engagement strategy is a great start. This means considering:

  • what are our major goals? E.g. We will get core funding for our charity committed by October.
  • What is our pitch? This is our proposal to government, with powerful evidence and reasoning for why government should provide us with funding or pursue policy reform.
  • Who will lead the government relations effort? This can be crucial, especially in larger organisations, where there is a risk that many people advocate without coordination.
  • Who do we need to engage to make it happen? E.g. department, adviser, minister.For each, what is our goal, how are we placed now, and what are our next steps?

This can be recorded in a simple table or document, and continuously discussed and updated as you navigate your path to success.

A punchy and compelling proposal

Pivotal to your success will be a concise document that outlines:

  • a clear proposal or recommendation that specifies exactly what you want from the government. This should be stated in a way that piques the interest of the government because it helps solve a societal challenge they care about. This is the “what”.
  • three to seven powerful points outlining why the government should fund your idea, backed by a few dot points of powerful evidence and reasoning. The aim should be to make each point so compelling that even on its own, the government will be disposed to support your proposal. In combination, the brief should strike the reader as a succession of surprisingly compelling arguments and evidence, with the case for action overwhelming. This is the “why”. Some tips here: No fluff. One argument per point. No repetition. Don’t mix the “what” and the “why”.

As part of the above, make sure that you can describe your organisation in a way that is concise, clear and compelling. Most organisations are somewhat complex, so this can be much harder than it sounds.

The foregoing may seem obvious, but in fact it is very common for documents to be written, or meetings held, without advocates being clear what the organisation does, what they want and why. This can be the difference between success and failure.

Parliament House
Ensure you head into Canberra, or other seats of power, with a well-prepared brief.

Know the avenues of power and influence

Armed with your powerful proposition, you now need to engage government to make your big dream a reality. But who do you speak to?

It depends. If you are a well-known and beloved national charity, it may only require a good proposal and a chat to the relevant department, perhaps supplemented by a discussion with the minister and/or their adviser. Sometimes government will want an evaluation, so having good data on the impact of your organisation is important.

Certainly, the department, the minister and their advisers are core avenues.

Department officials matter. They have expertise and can provide advice. And when the minister considers your proposal, who will they ask for advice? Yes, the department, so best to have that base covered.

In some cases, particularly if you are attempting something pioneering and ambitious, you may need to engage beyond these core avenues to secure support. This can mean dealing with:

  • Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet or the Department of Finance. These central agencies often work with spending departments in considering and developing proposals. They also brief the most senior ministers and Cabinet when decisions are being made.
  • the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC) of Cabinet: New spending proposals by ministers are considered by the ERC, so for big issues, you may wish to engage these ministers.
  • broader options can include ‘third-party advocacy’, which means drawing on influential Australians to argue your case, as well as using the media, leveraging philanthropy and engaging across the Parliament.

Gaining access and influencing through personalised correspondence and engagement

Ministers and government officials have many priorities and a big workload. Gaining access can be challenging, particularly if your organisation or cause is less well known.

One path to cutting through is personalised correspondence and engagement. This means tailoring your pitch to the audience. Look up your minister’s biography and read their first speech to Parliament, where they outline their background, beliefs and priorities. With this in mind, can you include a “hook” early in your correspondence or during the engagement that piques their interest? Over time, you can get to know their preferences. Do they prefer to talk or listen? Do they like a written brief, visual charts, or just a chat?

Influencing through personal engagement and a powerful network

The pandemic has made us more insular, working more from home and engaging through email and Teams. Nothing beats engaging in person, where you can best gain empathy for your cause, build relationships and inspire government to support your endeavours. Over time, you can build a broad network, further building your capacity for influence.

Sam Rosevear has 30 years of experience influencing governments more than 17 years working for federal and state governments, and more than 13 years in senior executive roles in the higher education and not-for-profit sectors.

Mr Rosevear will be hosting a masterclass on influencing government at the upcoming Philanthropy Australia annual conference on 5–7 August in Adelaide.

This article was first published here by Philanthropy Australia.

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