This is another of my columns under the general heading of “advice to founders.” It’s kind of an extension of the last one, but this time dealing with how to deal with the government.
First of all, recognize that government programs are like any other task – they are managed by people. They may be called civil servants but that does not mean their day to day motivation is all that different than anybody else.
While most civil servants take working for the public good very seriously, their job is NOT to invent what that public good should be. Their job, like any other working level person or mid-level manager, is to figure out how to implement the decisions that were made by someone else – usually far above their pay grade.
Most civil servants that you will deal with will arrive at work every day with a pretty clear idea of what they are supposed to be accomplishing. They will also be very aware of the constraints and restraints that they must work under and within while trying to accomplish those goals.
If you want to be successful working with government – either as a supplier or as an advocate – the first thing you should realize is that the person on the other side of the table is a person. By and large they approach their job the way anyone does. What concerns them most is how to get the job done with the tools they have available.
To the extent that you can provide more options and more tools for them to use, they will be interested in you and in what you are offering – whether that is products, services, or opinions.
In other words, treat meetings with government officials like any other sales call. Do not walk in and assume the role of taxpayer. By which I mean do not walk into the meeting and start holding forth on how the government should act and what policies it should make. Do not explain how you expect to be helped, because, of course, helping you is synonymous with serving the public good.
Don’t get me wrong, the average civil servant will politely accept that advice. They get it all the time. But just because they hear you out will not mean they are motivated to follow up or re-engage with you in any way.
Like any other conversation, if you want to be effective, you must be curious. Frankly, it also helps to be slow to understand. In other words, don’t hear a few words and then leap to the conclusion that you understand the issue and have already thought of a solution. You almost certainly don’t, and you probably haven’t. Spend the time to understand the real problem, the real constraints on the solution, the real imperatives that must be met.
Resist the temptation to judge those things. You do not have to agree with your customers to be able to help them. You just need to understand them.
In my experience if you spend the time asking government officials about their goals, their objectives, about how they will measure success, you will not only gain key insights, you will also be differentiating yourself, positively, from the large majority of businesses that they meet. Also, in my experience, they will appreciate that.
Even if you discover that the problem, they are currently trying to solve is not one you are well suited to addressing, the fact that you took the time to understand that before proposing a solution that was almost certain to be rejected will mark you out as someone that is genuinely interested in assisting. When problems do arise that are “in your wheelhouse,” you are far more likely to get a sensitive and interested hearing of your ideas if you have developed a reputation for being constructive – and not merely self-interested.
The good news about all of this is that unlike most customers that you will come across, the motivations of civil servants are reasonably easy to figure out. In fact, the high-level agenda they are charged with discharging is pretty much a matter of public record. It only takes a small amount of research to find out what the government priorities are – and a little bit more research to find out how each department – or portion of a department interprets those priorities and how they see their role in achieving them.
Believe it or not, what you will read is pretty close to the truth. One of the great strengths of our public service in Canada is that officials are genuinely and professionally committed to executing the current government’s agenda. It might be one of the more challenging aspects of the job at times, but it is something that they are good at.
Now, these publicly available sources will not be detailed. They will also be open to many kinds of interpretation. But they will not be untrue. They will, in all likelihood, provide you with a lot to be curious about. So do that. Learn what you can about the government’s agenda. Learn what you can about how the department or agency you are meeting with approaches its role in achieving that agenda. Look for details that are absent. Ask yourself what motivates the approach that is presented. And arm yourself with questions to ask when you arrive at the meeting.
Be slow to understand.
Get to know the problem before you offer a solution.
It works with government, just like it works anywhere else in business.