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Elements of Successful Lobbying

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
July 2004

Lobbying’s intent is to make dealing with big government a manageable, predictable and productive process for the interests concerned. (This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Association & Meeting Director, www.associationdirector.ca)


There is a David and Goliath element to all lobbying campaigns. The most privileged, connected and funded organization pales in comparison to the size, manpower, and resources of government.


Government dwarfs all other interests in society. Multiple conservative regimes inability to do more than modestly dent its size over the last two decades confirms that ‘Big Government’ is inescapable and here to stay. 


Government has multiple identities. It alone acts as both player and referee to arbitrate and define the “public interest”. Sometimes impartial and fair, it can also be narrowly self-interested. Despite adherence to a command and control governance model, it is neither coherent nor cohesive. On any given day, government pulls in all directions at once.


Associations, corporations, interest groups, and individuals develop strategies to promote or advance their interests in response to what government is, what it does or what it proposes to do.


The definition and execution of these strategies is called lobbying. 


Lobbying’s intent is to make dealing with big government a manageable, predictable and productive process for the interests concerned. At their best, good lobbying campaigns introduces dialogue, accountability, accommodation, clarity and some equity into an essentially unequal relationship. At their worst, they introduce self-servicing ‘noise & distortion’ into already crowded public debates.


There is no particular mystery to successful lobbying.  It is a matter of combining certain elements in a balanced way in the pursuit of a pre-determined strategy to create a certain result (amend bill, stop or start regulations, obtain funding, change tax policy, etc.)


These elements of successful lobbying are:


Anticipation and Early Warning: These provide the necessary lead-time to put strategies into effect. If your organization is always surprised by government decisions, it is already behind the eight ball. Interested and effective organizations continuously monitor government. Since much public information is now online, this task is easier.  But, technology cannot substitute for personal contact – most effective organizations have someone who, on an ongoing basis, calls government officials and asks,  “What’s New?”

Fortunately, governments move slowly.  This makes it possible for you to inform yourselves on intended policies and predict their eventual direction. 


Good Position: The value of one should never be underestimated. If not a guarantor of success, it is the right place to start. A case has to be made that your particular interest serves the broader public good.


Unlike the American political system, which provides opportunity for horse-trading between and amongst the legislative and executive branches, political power is far more concentrated in Canada.  Aligning self-interest with the public interest as defined by the PMO and Cabinet of the day is critical to lobbying success. 


A good position does not arrive out of thin air.  It has to reflect organizational interests. If your organization is membership driven, processes need to be in place to inform and consult members (or minimally the board) in order to obtain buy-in. There has to be sufficient access to resources to factually support a case via surveying members or commissioning independent research.


Sometimes organizations cannot reach effective positions. Internal processes are too slow or lack of consensus may exist. This undermines your effectiveness.  Positions must move beyond ‘motherhood’ statement to have an impact.  They need an edge and point of view to move public debate.


Concentrated Intelligence: Despite its large reservoir of bright, highly educated employees, government’s internal fetters hinder it from mobilizing its intellectual capital in consistent, deliberate, and imaginative ways. Additionally, government tend to create buffers between itself and the 'real world'. This creates opportunities for private organizations to bring in real world evidencemarshal facts, develop argumentation, define issues and shape public debate.


Problem/Solution:  Any problem presented to government must be accompanied by a workable solution. Success depends on government becoming convinced a solution is less risky than ignoring the problem.


Grass Roots Mobilization: There are a number of factors that distinguish organizations with highly effective lobbying programs, but the most critical is an engaged and active membership that periodically, and at critical times, makes its presence felt directly on decision-makers.


Grassroots and Grasstops lobbying work on the fundamental premise that public policy is made by those who bother to show up!


Additionally, the combination of Mr. Martin’s ‘Democratic Deficit’ agenda and a Minority Parliament will generate an enhanced role and influence for Parliament and Parliamentarians. Committee chairs will be elected by the committees themselves; there will be more free votes; more private members bills will see their way to legislation; MPs and committees will increasingly be the lead on important consultations; and committees will have larger budgets and will use new technology to engage the public. MPs will be expected to represent regional interests in a more aggressive fashion. Parliamentary Secretaries to Ministers will have more overt and delegated influence. 


These changes will act to the advantage of organization with strong grassroots programs.

Ensuring the active participation of your membership and having strong, consistent execution is not a simple task.  But successful, effective grassroots lobbying extends the strength and impact of your organization well beyond your actual economic impact and numerical strength.


Increasingly, the Internet is the organizational medium of choice for organizing and managing effective grassroots campaigns. Many organizations lag some of the leading issue NGOs in effectively adapting to this new medium and they need to move up the learning curve.


Working the Process:  Government is nothing if not process-ridden. These processes can work both for and against your interests by deflecting, defusing and delaying decisions.  Since you never totally escape these processes, you learn to use them to achieve your objectives.


Coalitions: There is strength in numbers and the more organizations rally behind an issue, the stronger the overall posture with government.


Coalitions also have a downside. Developing commons positions is a protracted process and you may find your issues submerged.


These days, it is worth noting that it is often government pushing different groups into a room and asking them to develop a common position. It is a clever strategy. It saves government from actually dealing with each organization individually.  The need to make trade offs internally often blunts or isolates the more extreme organizational positions. And, if parties cannot agree, government has more freedom to act.


Advocacy/Personal Contact:  You reduce the size and impersonality of government by identifying that small group of appointed and elected officials whose views are decisive on any given issue.  That group may start at the desk officer level and extend up to Cabinet or into the House of Commons.  The number of individuals with impact on a given decision can be as low as 10 and as high as several hundred.  The usual range is in the order of 30 to 40 people.  Of that groups maybe 10 top 15 individuals are key and the rest follow their lead.


Attention to Detail:  The Devil is in the details. Tactical adjustments and refinements minimize friction in dealings with government.  Opportunities are often buried in the details.


Consistent Pressure: One of the singular achievements of government is that it is perfectly designed to defuse and dissipate momentum behind worthy proposals.  To counter the natural inertia of government machinery, it is necessary to focus and continuously refocus decision-makers attention on a proposal in order to propel it through the machinery.


Judgment:  Finally, this is the elusive quality that allows lobbyists to mould most, or all of these elements into a successful strategy.  Good lobbying judgment is a function of aptitude, creative problem-solving, strong communications skills, and concrete experience gained over multiple lobbying campaigns.

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