Lost in Translation

As many of you know, I spent about 10 years in the Civil Service in Nova Scotia, and during that time I had occasion to meet a wide variety of individuals who advocated on behalf of an equally wide range of causes. One of the things that always struck me about my interactions with some people outside of government was their lack of knowledge about how to communicate with government on a very basic level. This inability to effectively communicate was not isolated to individuals in small grassroots organizations – the misconceptions about how government hears, understands, and acts on issues is widespread, occurring even among the highest levels of academia.

The problem of communication, of speaking the same language to accomplish a goal, generally acquiring government support for ideas or movements, is one that I worked hard to rectify. I tried very hard to translate the needs of stakeholders into the language of government, and offer guidance on what is and is not effective in communicating ideas and soliciting support from representatives of government.  I had cause to return to the topic recently during my current project, as it became clear that there was an expectation that as long as the correct individuals were identified, the message in whatever form would be conveyed effectively. That isn’t the case. Often convincing government of the wisdom or efficacy of a project or plan is not dependent on the content of the message; rather it is dependent on the delivery. What you say is important, but how you say it is critical.

I decided, therefore, to jot down a few pointers that people can use when approaching government – a quick course in government relations. If you keep certain things in mind, your communications with government will be more effective, and you will have a better chance of reaching your goals. My experience is at the provincial level for the most part, but I have worked often enough on federal-provincial and regional committees to know that certain rules hold true more often than not.

When communicating with government, keep the following things in mind:

  • Clarity: I have often seen people approach government officials with great ideas, only to have them fail because the presenters took things for granted – for example, specialized jargon, or the ‘lingo’ of a profession.  Let’s say I want to convince you that the IMDB is a great source of information that has made certain choices easier to make, or led me to make choices that I wouldn’t ordinarily have made. Many of you doubtless know I am referring to the Internet Movie Data Base, but those of you who didn’t may wonder what sort of influence a website may have over me. When you present an idea or concept, consider the fact that the audience may not be intimately familiar with the subject matter. Even if they are, keep it simple and to the point; spell out acronyms and use plain language, not technical jargon, when speaking. Support will only come if officials understand what you are saying.
  • Brevity: Again, some ideas are great, some not so great, and many of both types can be dismissed if they are presented badly or in a slide presentation that makes “War and Peace” seem like a commercial. As Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Consider that if you are a high-ranking government official who has been able to clear time in her schedule to hear some proposals based on recommendations from staff, what you want is to be given the highlights, and to have time to ask questions that will ensure that the presentation makes sense and can be remembered later. Take the time beforehand to ensure a presentation or a report is not bogged down in detail. Particularly on the initial exposure, if more detail is wanted, most senior civil servants that I know will not be shy about asking questions.
  • Information At The Ready: So, given that you will be asked questions if you have done your job right up until now, do you have the answers? Based on your audience, all of the details may not be in your presentation – but do you have them close at hand when you need them? If I were to give anyone presenting to government one piece of advice, it would be this: if you don’t know with some certainty how much your idea will cost, you haven’t a chance of getting very far.  Approximations are fine, within reason. If you tell me something will cost between five dollars and one million dollars, my next response will be to wish you a nice day and send you packing. The two questions you need to be able to answer will be: “How much will it cost?” and “What’s the evidence in support of the idea?” One of the most important things to keep in mind when presenting to a provincial audience is whether your idea has been tried in other provinces – we’re all one big happy Canadian family, but families can be competitive – provinces certainly are.
  • Know Your Audience: How you present information to government can be largely dependent on who your audience is. Of course, you are communicating with “government”, but the cultures within government can be rather different if you differentiate between junior, mid-level or senior civil servants. In my experience, junior civil servants actually do the work – should you be successful in ‘selling’ an idea, you should expect to work closely with them to make it happen. However, they can’t make decisions, only recommendations. Mid-level civil servants will be the ones who order actions to be taken, as they supervise the junior levels. They can help or hamper you based on their level of interest in a project or idea – these are the people who will want the detailed budgets before they jump aboard and commit their staff to making recommendations based on the evidence you provide. They don’t make the big decisions either, although their support will carry a lot of weight if senior officials need to be convinced. Senior officials, all the way up to Deputy Ministers, are the real decision makers. Most of them that I’ve met and gotten to know have been incredibly intelligent, did not suffer fools gladly, and had the capacity to be utterly ruthless in ensuring that government funds are spent wisely.  Don’t get me wrong though: they are still human beings at the end of the day – parents, grandparents, wives, husbands. They are experienced, professional politicians, even more political than the actual elected officials. An idea stands or falls with the endorsement of a Deputy Minister.
  • Time is Relative: This may be somewhat of a cliché, but the reality is that government time is considerably slower than the time the rest of the world uses. This isn’t a result of disinterest on the part of the individuals who work with government (I have in my career met far more dedicated, energetic civil servants than lazy or uninterested ones) but there is the reality of the checks and balances that exist to protect the public trust – for my part, I always took my role as a steward of the public trust very seriously, and it was important to me that I knew that what I was doing created benefit and minimized waste. In addition to the financial accountability and transparency necessary to move things forward (which requires considerable detail work), there is still political influence to deal with. Although it may sound a little strange, one truth I have come away with is that politics were the worst part of governing. An idea may be wonderful, but unless it is also politically popular, your chances of success become lessened. In any case, don’t expect the wheels to have turned fully by tomorrow. It takes time to work things through the political and financial processes that are the everyday reality of government, so if you have a big idea that you believe will save the world and you approach the government for support, get comfortable, you’re in for a long ride in most cases.

There are other considerations, of course, and one must always consider the individual climate of each jurisdiction when tailoring a message, but for the most part these are the main considerations anyone who needs to interact with government must keep in mind. We’re fortunate here at Monkeytree to have experienced consultants like Monkey leader Andrea and I to help individuals and organizations work with government effectively – Government Relations is one of the more fascinating areas of our expertise, and one that can have clear and tangible benefits. As with any important interaction, sometimes finding a good translator is half the battle.

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