The ten commandments of influencing government
The 10 commandments of influencing government
by Professor John Thwaites
Professor John Thwaites, former Deputy Premier of Victoria (1999–2007) and Chairman of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, has developed a list of 10 ‘commandments’ as a quick introduction for those wishing to influence the political and policy-making process. And these commandments apply just as much to businesses and other large organisations.
Here, Professor Thwaites shares his insights from a long career in politics and influence on how to maximise effectiveness in speaking to government. His 10 commandments provide clear guidelines for thinking about influence.
Review the 10 commandments
- 1. Know what you want to achieve, and be clear about it
- 2. Know what the government or industry wants to achieve
- 3. Identify the decision maker
- 4. Understand the political life cycle
- 5. Collaborate and come as a team
- 6. Be prepared and be persistent
- 7. Timing is everything
- 8. Understand the power of values and emotions
- 9. Think about the message and the messenger
- 10. Prioritise and compromise
Many organisations and individuals seeking to influence the government often struggle to articulate what it is they want government, business or others to do. This struggle often applies to scientists and researchers, who are specialists in the diagnosis and study of problems, but can struggle to convey clearly what they want to happen as a result. What exactly do you want a minister or CEO to do in response to your research? What are the concrete steps you think they should take? If you’re seeking to influence a particular policy or decision, what does a good outcome look like?
For more information, refer to page 30 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
What does the person on the other side of the table want to achieve? What are their goals and aspirations in the short and medium terms? How can your ideas and your interests work alongside theirs? These are critical preliminary questions to ask and research for answers. Both government and businesses are constantly petitioned by interest groups and those seeking an outcome, but they give the best reception to those who are most likely to help the decision-maker do their job.
For more information, refer to page 32 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
Who is ultimately responsible for whether an idea, proposal or research goes ahead? Who are the people responsible for making the key decisions? Often, people don’t research who has the final say. The decision maker may be a more junior official than you expect, and you need to cultivate her or him, rather than approach the highest authority.
For more information, refer to page 34 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
Most politicians have similar career pattern, from being first elected as a backbench MP to becoming an opposition spokesperson, and then possibly becoming a minister and then retiring. Politicians have very different interactions at these different stages: as newly elected backbenchers, they have little power and few people courting them, but the opposite is true as they become more senior. Most people attempt to garner influence and get outcomes by approaching a minister. But this is the point when the demands on a politician's time and attention are the greatest, so it is much harder to influence them (although the results of doing so successfully will be immediate). A more successful strategy tries to build relationships and trust with MPs before they are overwhelmed by the demands of more powerful positions. This advice is just as appropriate in business: cultivating relationships and trust with more junior staff can pay significant dividends in the future when those staff are promoted.
For more information, refer to 'Part 2. Strategic issues in influence and advocacy' in Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
A coalition is much stronger than an individual in trying to influence an outcome. Scientists and researchers are frequently lone wolves or work in small packs, and they may not network or build alliances with those outside their research sphere. Yet, of the best examples of influence in policy making, many come from coalitions of different interests. Scientists need to branch out and spend time cultivating allies and interests that align with theirs, from across the community, industry and government.
For more information, refer to pages 16 and 17 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
Influence takes time and effort. It cannot be achieved overnight in many cases, and it requires careful planning and cultivation. Scientists often think of influence as an afterthought to research, but they’d be far better placed by earlier engaging with decision makers.
For more information, refer to pages 31-34 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
Timing is central, and often the difference between a successful and unsuccessful campaign for influence over a decision or policy. A campaign waged when the government is finalising a new policy or in the middle of a re-election campaign will often be swatted away. But it might have been welcomed only a few months earlier, at the start of those processes. Businesses and governments have budgetary cycles and respond strongly to external events, and scientists need to understand that rhythm. Moreover, when opportunities appear (perhaps as a result of unexpected events or environmental conditions), scientists need to be ready to press their case. Another opportunity may not come for some time!
For more information, refer to pages 24-26 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
If decision making in business or government were purely a matter of a logic and science, there’d be no need for these commandments. We know, however, that decision making involves a wide variety of important other considerations, from community emotions to political values, to economic and social constraints and realities. When putting on their influence hat, scientists need to be able to step away from the logic that underpins their own work, into a world with a much broader and more complex array of ideas, philosophies and approaches to making decisions and to determining what constitutes ‘evidence’.
For more information, refer to pages 43 and 44 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
Communication is a critical part of the process. Scientists and researchers are well versed as communicators with other technical audiences, but they need to be able to hone their messages to cut through to non-experts and decision makers who will not always be interested in the same facets that they are.
For more information, refer to pages 45 and 46 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
Often, change (particularly sustainable change) is a long term process in which not everyone gets everything they wanted. Scientists and researchers need to be pragmatic about what they want. And they need to be able to make sometimes tough decisions on where to compromise and where to prioritise. Although comprehensive action might be the ideal, what would be the most effective singular actions? Although a large budget might be necessary for the best change, what kind of change could a smaller budget buy, and where would it best be spent? These are questions to which both business and government are inevitably subjected. So, scientist too should ask these kinds of question when making a plan to achieve a certain outcome.
For more information, refer to pages 35-36 and 41-42 of Policy influence: tactics and strategies for researchers.
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