The role of lobbying in social change

Source: Timorose

Lobbying. The word that describes talking about your issues with government decision-makers. This word is often equated with scandal and bad judgment by governments and practitioners alike. But lobbying can have tremendous value for organizations who are seeking social or environmental change. So if it means you’ll keep reading, let’s call it public affairs or government relations for now.

Why don’t we lobby?

There are a number of real barriers that keep some organizations from spending time on government relations. It takes time and effort, and not just the paperwork to get registered to lobby. For many, the cost of travel and work of getting prepared takes precious resources and time away from other strategic efforts. And let’s face it, it can be intimidating to navigate the system of rules just to sit face to face with a politician or public servant who may or may not even listen. Who do you talk to? How do you get a meeting? What do you say?

Those very real barriers can sometimes combine with a reliance on the alternative modes of communicating with government. You sent a letter, you issued a press release – they will have read those and be clear on your position already, right?

Not necessarily.

Some government officials know where you stand on an issue, and some might even understand why. Maybe they explained all that to the political level. For something this important, doesn’t it make sense to check for yourself?

Even more importantly, without talking to the decision makers, how can you know where they stand? Yes, you might know what the bureaucrats told you. You might know what they’ve done or not done on an issue. But do you really understand why? Again, this is critical information to your strategy, and it is well worth the effort to make sure you get a peek into the thinking of the politicians and decision-makers.

In 2015, I joined the new Alberta government as the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Energy, and later spent time in the same role in Finance. In those roles, I grew to understand the central importance of talking to government.

First, the very act of persistently and professionally seeking a meeting with a Minister or elected person focuses their attention. Briefing notes are written, questions are asked, advice sought. It serves to focus their attention on you and the issue you are wanting to talk about. Closer to the meeting, you can be sure that the political staff and the minister will see those briefing notes, and so their attention – however brief – will be turned to making sure the meeting goes well.

Second, it’s an opportunity to assess the government’s understanding of your issue. What do they understand? What are they missing? More importantly, you can find that all-important sweet spot where your values and goals align with theirs. Even in situations where you think everyone is on the same page, it’s important to confirm that in person.

Regardless of your understanding of policy or social change, the relationships and information that are built by talking directly to government are an asset in creating change.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you jettison the work of building power through engagement with the public or running campaigns that press for change. I’m suggesting that these tactical approaches are almost always more strategic and more successful if you have those key conversations with government.

If you’re not talking directly to the decision-makers, you’re operating in a field you can’t see clearly, and that can make the path to victory harder to find.

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