Editorial: Getting government earsCanadian Contractor canada contractor editorial Sept/Oct
Was on a panel hosted by the tireless Mike Wood of Ottawa Special Events, an event rental operator who has transitioned to advocating on behalf of small business during the pandemic. The discussion was pure gold – frankly we could have done another two hours. If you want to view a recording of it, reach out to Mike at email@example.com and he’ll send a link to anyone interested.
As is often the case, the questions were sometimes more revealing than the answers. Just about all of them revolved around how to gain the attention of the right people in government. My sense was that many of the attendees had had the frustrating experience of trying to contact decision-makers and being stonewalled with automated email responses and silence. Can you relate?
Part of this is, as one attendee put it, a problem of a million bees trying to get into one tiny hole. Every official gets more communications than they could ever expect to handle, especially these days with so much changing and so much not working to the satisfaction of business. But there were many practical tips offered for how to proceed that I’ll try to relay here.
The first of these was simply a web address: infogo.gov.on.ca. That’s the online directory for the Ontario government that not only lists all the various ministries and their departments, but also provides phone numbers and email addresses for the ministers and staff. All provinces have something similar. The panelists recommended trying to reach assistants in charge of scheduling in order to try to set up calls or meetings with MPPs and ministers, though they cautioned that ministers are pretty hard to nail down.
The panelists recommended getting your ask toward the top of any email message and leading with your story: who you are, why the issue is important to you and how it has impacted (or will impact) you directly. Presenting solutions instead of just making complaints is important, as is a generally polite and respectful tone. Venting of emotions and grand theories is discouraged. When thinking about your “ask,” one panelist suggested envisioning a Venn diagram. One circle is your interest, another circle is the public interest and the third circle is the candidate’s political interest. For best results, your proposed solution to the issue you are raising should fall in the middle where the three circles overlap. And, as always, brevity in your communications is the best policy.
The panelists recommended focusing on your local MP or MPP rather than going to ministers right away. After all, they are the ones who need your vote and the votes of your friends, customers and employees.
If you’re having trouble getting your representative’s attention, or the response is consistently one you don’t like, you can go to the media. This is a bit like putting away the rifle and pulling out a cannon. It’s more powerful, but can cause collateral damage. The panelists recommended local print media saying it’s where all the TV and radio producers get their ideas anyway. Speaking from experience, I can tell you journalists are eager to hear your experiences and opinions and are usually a heck of a lot easier to reach than politicians. But beware: if you’ve succeeded in building a relationship with a politician and are perhaps involved in consultations with them, talking about them, their positions and any open proposals without their blessing will turn you into an enemy very quickly (unless it’s in the most glowing terms). Once you’ve gotten to that stage, media silence is best.