Government Relations Is Not Just about Having Contacts In High Places

Lately I have seen quite a few advertisements for Government Relations Managers that blatantly requests that applicants must have the right contacts.

As if this was all that Government Relations is about. In my opinion Government Relations is much more than networking. It is about listening, engaging, communicating, lobbying, proposing and ultimately presenting your organisation’s case in a favourable manner.

Crucial to understanding the Government stakeholder is knowledge of the geo- political landscape and issues like Protocol and the time it takes to make decisions e.g. the brown paper, green paper, white paper, Bill and eventually legislative process.

In order to meaningfully engage with the Government Stakeholder it is vital that organisations understand the What, Why and How.

Why Build Relationships with the Government?

Increasingly regulators (Government & other bodies) are becoming highly significant stakeholders in organisations. Often they have considerable influence over the conduct of the organisation and the way in which it operates.

Assessment of regulator satisfaction indicates how well the organisation understands and interprets the regulator’s requirements and acts to satisfy them. These assessments will prevent situations such as the recent case of ICASA versus Wireless Business Solutions–  that turned ugly when the regulator aided by the police service, raided the telecommunication company’s premises in Johannesburg, where it seized radio equipment that included core fibre switches, vital to the running of its business services. WBS had to go to court to get an interdict to continue operations, but in the meantime the resultant loss in connectivity for more than 48 hours resulted in WBS facing “significant claims” from subscribers who may have incurred financial losses while their connection was interrupted.

In most circumstances satisfaction of the regulator and regulatory requirements is a precondition to market entry and continuance. If regulators are not satisfied the organisation quite simply will not be awarded a licence to operate. Or the regulator may pass laws such as the Consumer Protection Act that makes it more difficult to operate.

In many cases regulators represent the interests of other stakeholders or the community in which the organisation operates. This might include particular minority stakeholders, who are not organised collectively. Regulators might include industry specific regulators, environmental regulators, regulators of competition – Competition Commission, ICASA etc., health and safety regulators, accreditation bodies (e.g. ISO), etc.

How to Build Closer Working Relationships

There are many factors that can affect working relationships, but striving to actively develop closer working relations with regulators will enable easier identification of their wants and needs, and of the way in which they can be satisfied. That’s why some organisations have Parliamentary Liaison Officers. Individuals that work the space carefully and methodically.

Development of close working relations with regulators can also provide the organisation with the opportunity (subtle lobbying) to feed back their concerns regarding regulation with the hope of influencing the development of future regulations and the regulator’s approach.

In addition close and open working relationships can enable early notification of changes in regulations to be provided, allowing greater opportunity to satisfy their requirements in sufficient time. Just like an Editor may decide to contact an organization when he hears of bad news, to check the facts before publishing it. This only happens if there is a close working relationship and trust between the two parties.

A good sign of a close relationships with regulators will be when the regulator is willing to listen and openly consult about potential regulations. This in turn will be affected by the regulator’s satisfaction with the past performance of the organisation, current relationships and mutual understanding.

However this is not an easy task and not as simple as it sounds. Take SANRAL and the e-tolling saga as an example of conflict and public dissatisfaction and court action being taken.

Open and Close Working Relationships  implies many different sets of criteria, and those are often revealed in consultations when a stakeholder expresses his or her needs, wants and preferences. The problem is that few organisations have thought about meaningfully working the success of these relationships. As I stated before it is so much more than just having the right connections and relying on political affiliations and hand-outs.

I would advise that it is crucial to map the journey of the Government stakeholder with the organisation through defining contact points and moments of truth, but a close look will also need to be taken of:

1. The number of points of contact i.e. the number of people within the organisation who have contact with members of the regulator’s team. When relations are poor there is likely to be only one point of contact at a high level in the organisation, through which all communication must be channelled. When there are close working relations members at all levels of the organisation may be able to contact a member of the regulatory body to discuss specific issues or concerns with the regulator. Questions that should be asked about the nature and relevance of relationships and how the contact point measures his interactions.

2. It will be useful to take a look at the average number of meetings / communications / consultations with regulators in a given period by analysing:

– The number of meetings and considering how many were direct face-to-face communications with the regulator.

– The type and nature of the meetings and communications – which are the interactions between regulator and organisation via any medium.

– The number and nature of consultations – which are the two way negotiations between the regulator and the organisation, where the organisation is provided with the opportunity to feed back opinions on regulation. Were these open, honest or conflict-orientated.

3. Whether there was advance warnings of regulation changes – i.e. Did the regulator share or reveal information snippets of future regulation changes, allowing more notice to take action? If working relations are good the organisation will be able to instigate all modes of communication to consult on a wide range of issues. This will not be the case if relations are poor – all communication is likely to be from the regulator side.

Working with the Government regulator is so much more than just connection and networking. Government Stakeholder Managers need influencing skills, knowledge of negotiation, conflict, legal and personal and group psychology techniques together with the understanding of protocol, and much, much more.

But above all; questions – typical of a performance assessment type, must be asked of whether Government managers bring adequate value – performance and behavior to the process of building the organization’s reputation with the Government.