How to be good at Government Relations - and why it matters
Anthony worked in the civil service for 38 years until 2014. He held roles in seven departments and was head of legal in five. These included HM Revenue & Customs, the then Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence.
Businesses need to know about government’s plans and actions for tax, employment, regulation and legislation. And government needs to understand how its decisions affect organisations of all types across the country.
A government proposal to change a policy may have far-reaching effects for a business, or an entire industry sector. Businesses will need to follow the issue closely and, possibly, try to influence it in a bid to improve it or to iron out perceived deficiencies. Government action in the form of regulatory action could have a direct and immediate impact which may even threaten a business’s ability to operate.
This is a vital topic for businesses and government. Imagine running a business without knowing what government legislation was heading your way and without any influence over that legal framework.
Imagine too, a government that has no feedback from business to inform its policies or provide early warning of future problems.
Government relations is a two-way street. One where win-wins can be explored and any losses on both sides avoided.
In this article I offer what I hope is common sense advice about government relations drawn from nearly 40 years’ experience as a legal civil servant in government followed by three years “on the outside”. You may be involved in government relations regularly or just occasionally. You may take the lead in encounters with government or you may be involved in a support role. This is a vast subject. My perspective merely scratches the surface.
Businesses and trade associations
Although I refer to “businesses”, I include in this all organisations that deal with government. Some of these organisations, such as trade associations and unions, are highly skilled at government relations and need no advice.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to government relations. Different organisations have different needs from government, and different people play different roles in different organisations. The best advice is to use your judgement.
For example, if your business is a member a trade association which liaises with government, you may not need direct relations of your own. A possible exception to this could be if you act as an occasional member of a delegation representing the trade association in meetings with government contacts.
What “government” means
So what does “government” mean here? In this context it means central government, or what is sometimes misleadingly called Whitehall and Westminster. I’m not talking about the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although I would expect the principles there would be the same or very similar. Nor am I referring to local government, where the principles and practices have similarities as well as differences.
Central government sounds like a monolithic entity. This is not quite true! There are around fifty government departments. Of these, about half are headed by government ministers. They’re known as ministerial departments. The rest, known as non-ministerial departments, are headed by civil servants.
It’s important, therefore, to decide which departments you’ll need to build relations with. Departments rarely talk to each other about which businesses they’re meeting, so never assume that, having got your message over to one department, it will find its way to another. This can even be true about the individual parts of a single large department.
Government relations doesn’t generally mean relations with ministers, of whom there are comparatively few. And ministers move positions so regularly that it’s difficult – and of limited value - to build sustainable relations with them anyway. That said, when a subject is really important, it’s worth trying to get a meeting with the minister. The minister will want to consult their civil servants before agreeing to any meeting, so there’s little point in bypassing the latter to get to the former.
Of course, if the head of your business enjoys close relations with ministers, make the most of them.
The role of civil servants within government
Government relations then, really means relations with the civil service rather than with government ministers. Civil servants who build relations with outside organisations are there to advise their ministers or heads of department on the various general and sectoral policies of their department. In other words, these are the people with real policy responsibility in government. They know their subject, usually in detail. Liaison with outside organisations is one part of their day job. Government does not tend to have generic public relations teams.
The term “relations” can mean many things, from very occasional encounters to a deep on-going relationship. Again, work out what’s best for your business’s specific needs.
Civil servants work under a code that requires them to be objective, honest and impartial (including politically impartial), and to act with integrity. So don’t expect any favours. Rather, expect evidence-based discussions. The top civil servants have to maintain publicly-available hospitality registers that show where they have received hospitality, including meals. They’ll need to ensure that any hospitality is given as part of a genuine civil service business need.
Civil servants tend to move between posts every few years. When there’s a change you lose the experience that the outgoing person has built up of your industry, but you gain the opportunity of helping the new person get up to speed. If you’ve got a good relationship with the outgoing person, maintain contact but obviously not in such a way as to undermine the new person.
I call the civil servant who takes the lead in advising ministers on your industry the “policy lead”.
As well as having policy leads for certain business sectors, some departments pick some of its senior civil servants each to take the lead in liaising with the top businesses relevant to its work. Where this happens you may have two people to build relationships with. But, again, don’t assume that everything you tell one will be shared with the other.
The role of civil service lawyers
When policy leads need legal advice they get it from their in-house lawyers. There are only about 2,000 lawyers across all departments of government. They spend most of their time doing technical legal work like drafting and working on the passage of legislation, litigating, giving legal advice and prosecuting. They rarely attend meetings with outside organisations unless there’s something specifically legal to discuss, such as points of detail on a draft set of regulations. When they are there, it’s normally in a supporting, rather than a lead role. That doesn’t mean your business can’t bring, or be represented by, a lawyer. Nor does it necessarily follow that if your business fields a lawyer at a meeting, the policy lead will also bring one along from their department.
Tips for building relations
If you’ve been asked to attend a meeting, either in a lead role for your business or in a support role, here are some tips:
- Build your credibility. Take plenty of substance to the meeting - information, evidence, ideas. Aim to convince government you’re a good contact. You know a great deal, you share ideas, you’re sound, practical and original. You understand where government is coming from and you get your points over clearly and courteously, yet you’re also a good listener. And, most important of all, you can be trusted. The key to government relations is in building trust. You may be told things in confidence or off the record, so you’ll need to show that you can respect confidences. You may also want to share confidences with the policy lead. Aim to put all your cards on the table – or at least avoid being regarded as conducting yourself in a misleading fashion. Ideally, you want to position yourself so that (a) when you have a serious point to make, government listens and acts upon it and (b) government comes early to you, when possible, with its thinking on policies for your sector. Aim to become the civil servants “go to” person;
- Keep it at strategic level. Don’t act like a narrow lawyer. Government policy leads have wide strategic experience. They’ll switch off if they think you’re “down in the weeds”. Make it clear from the outset that you speak with the authority of your organisation (if that is the case). If a departmental lawyer is present, avoid getting into a narrow discussion about legal points. If one is necessary, volunteer to do it off line. On the whole, people on both sides of discussions hate it when they turn into a “legal fest” because it takes up precious time allotted to strategic conversations;
- Be clear and concise. Be measured and use an evidence-based approach. If you want to circulate written materials round the table, make them easily accessible, perhaps in slide form. Keep it brief. If something longer is needed, send it beforehand if possible. Don’t think your main weapon is surprise;
- Keep it in context. Where your points relate to a part or the whole of your industry, make that clear. Show how your information fits in to the bigger picture rather than presenting it as a special plea on your business’s behalf; and
- Take a partnership approach. Unless the circumstances are exceptional, avoid taking colleagues who believe that to be influential they have to batter the government side. This doesn’t work. It will damage both your credibility as well as that of your confrontational colleague.
Is this only about meetings?
No. It’s more about building trust. So, don’t ask for a meeting that isn’t necessary, especially if it’ll involve a lot of travel for the civil servants. It’ll be seen as a waste of time and make it difficult for you to get a meeting in the future. It would also make the policy lead think you’re amateurish.
When civil servants agree to a meeting, where should it be? Aim for meetings on your premises or those of the department, not neutral places such as restaurants and wine bars. Think first about going to the department’s premises and meeting over coffee. If you want the policy lead to come to you, give them a compelling reason. For example, a site visit could help the policy lead and a group of colleagues learn more about your industry. If the meeting will take place over lunch in your office’s dining suite, a good reason for this could be that you need other colleagues involved in the discussion and they’re only free over lunch.
There are also networking groups where people from business and the civil service can meet on neutral ground, for example to attend talks, seminars and round table meetings.
Meetings, however, are only part of this relationship-building process. All forms of contact need to contribute to the development of trust and cooperation and follow the principles in the tips I set out above.
So what should you do between meetings with civil servants? Follow the department’s website and read the government’s pronouncements, especially in your area. Read all consultation documents and comment where appropriate. Maintain the relationship with emails and phone calls. Attend talks given by ministers and civil servants in the departments of most concern to you. And if an opportunity arises for someone from your business to be seconded to government, consider taking it.
If you don’t have a relationship but need a meeting
Use your contacts for recommendations of the right person to speak to. If in doubt, go to the highest appropriate senior level and explain carefully why you need the meeting. The person you contact can always delegate the meeting down to a suitable person but things work less easily in the other direction.
If you need to influence the content of a government Bill
The above principles should help you to build a good working relationship with government. If you learn of something in a government Bill that needs to be amended during its passage, you’ll now be able to contact and establish a dialogue with the right people in the relevant government department.
Departments can, however, be resistant to arguments for change, especially if you’re seeking to make a Bill work better, rather than to eliminate a howler. In these circumstances, you’ll need to persuade an MP or Peer to table an amendment during the Bill’s passage and demonstrate to them that you’ll hinder the Bill’s progress unless your point is accepted.
More formal contacts between businesses and government
Another kind of contact with government is where your business is the subject of potential or actual regulatory action, civil or criminal. If your organisation is involved in such action, you’ll need to handle it ultra-professionally. It may include lawyer-to lawyer discussions, so the in-house lawyer’s role is at its most crucial here. Don’t assume that, because government staffs its cases with what to you may look like small legal teams, it’s a soft touch. It wins a high proportion of its cases. And, as government never bluffs in its litigation or, in my experience, its regulatory interventions, you should take these cases very seriously.
A thoughtful, respectful and planned approach to Government Relations can make a real difference - especially if your company or sector is the subject of close scrutiny.