The Power of the Informal

The power of informal

I have gone to great lengths trying to perfect the Public Affairs basics: writing position papers, reading legislation and understanding the intrinsics of the legislative process. Yet, few things have done more for me than connecting with my network informally. If lobbying strikes the public sometimes like a dirty word, then “informal” is its naive but promiscuous sidekick. There is an air of frivolity hanging around the word as if it is the exclusive realm of do-nothing coffee-drinkers that go by life not by studying but by charming their teacher into a pass. No longer. Because politics and government are first and foremost a “people’s business”, –  we should take informality as serious as the common legislative procedure (or maybe even more ). Examined closer, it’s peculiar that we don’t spend more time articulating and perfecting the art of the informal. Here a post devoted to the why and how’s of informality.

The Why 

The reason that informality is so important in government and politics is because of two intertwined reasons. The first I mentioned earlier; politics is “a people business” and trust is at the centre of any political transaction. Lunches, coffees and the occasional beer (or two, never mind give me four it’s a happy hour) make for people-centred arenas of trust. Before people can trust you, they need to know that you are human at all. So little human acts like drinking and eating together solidify a bond that would otherwise only be transactional and utilitarian. Amendments, parliamentary questions and the occasional resolution are all important acts but don’t come with that healthy dose of Oxytocin that needs to be present before any of that can take place. The culture of drinking, eating and feasting together in order to stimulate trust and kinship have been around for centuries. Political centres are not void of this but rather embrace this game wholeheartedly. 

Secondly, a focus on the formal process neglects something which any old hack in lobbying or politics will tell you: things go wrong. All.the.time. Most policy solutions do not fit the strict rhythm of government or parliament we so neatly have designed. While we have organized ourselves in organograms and flowcharts; reality has its own plan. So in order to have any sensible outcome or rather to have a political outcome at all >  the system relies on people coming together and working things out. Sometimes, more lawmaking is done at Karsmakers (Brussels) or the Plein (The Hague) than in the offices of civil servants or parliamentary assistants. Systems and procedures are rigid, informal is the oil that makes sure the engine keeps running. 

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The How 

When you are new in any given field, make sure you know the key decision-makers before you actually have an ask. People tend to forget that it is not only “knowing people ”, those same people also need to know you 😉 So reaching out to people with flair and persona is important in any political endeavour. 

In Brussels, it is rather easy as there exists a lavish culture of lunches and coffees and you will be forgiven for not having anything concrete to talk about or any acute problem to solve. In the Hague, it tends to be a bit more transactional. When I arrived in the Hague, people were a bit more reluctant to go for lunch or coffee without a concrete ask or agenda.  In national politics, the focus should be more on establishing a working relationship. But also then there is ample room for informal./ You can always propose to talk shop over lunch or propose more informal settings for your meetings. During Covid, we organized “Walk & Talks”; intimate long walks between our executives and parliamentary candidates and officials. The small scale program, the coffee and the one-on-one talks were not only a great substitute to otherwise PowerPoint presentations, they might just change the nature of work visits altogether. 

I am tempted to write a manual form post where I give you instructions on how the structure of a lunch meeting should be, how to put your interlocutor at ease and what to order and what not. 

But it is a bit counterintuitive because, in order to thrive at the informal game, the most important thing is to be you and be a good listener. That’s it. As long as you don’t yap on about you and your problems or pretend to be something you don’t need me telling you what to order (even though I seriously warn you about the price of fresh orange juice at Park Side, they cost a small fortune). 

Even making mistakes sometimes solidifies a bond or a network. In general, being vulnerable in expressing fears and doubts and even admitting mistakes, is a great way to form informal relationships. We talk too much about having the perfect event, the perfect op-ed or the perfect lobby. In relationships -even with key decision-makers- it doesn’t work like that. Being someone that doesn’t express doubt or insecurity will cast a shadow over if you are human or if you know what you are doing at all. There is nothing more powerful than when I cast my sincere doubt over my own elaborately designed lobby plan, right there in the boardroom with everybody there. People see that you have calculated risk, that you are aware of them and that you are losing sleep over those risks. It is only then that they trust you with their interest. 

Finally, throw a party every now and then. Whether it is an annual reception, Christmas drinks or your own birthday bash where you mix business and personal. People love a good party and I noticed that no matter how much people make, free drinks tap into a certain part of the brain that instantly releases  Oxytocin. Sounds silly and frivolous? It’s not. You should take it as seriously as parliamentary procedures or a vote in Strasbourg. 

The Informal Game- Cheat Sheet 

  •   Instead of an expensive restaurant take your interlocutor to the Beer Factory or fries at Flagey.
  • Steer your interlocutor away from the boring PowerPoint -have a Walk & Talk outside instead.
  • Push back. There is nothing that bonds and shows you are equal that getting into a discussion. You don’t need to agree on everything.
  • Send WhatsApp messages to your interlocutor that arent hardcore lobbying. For example links to interesting articles, birth-day wishes and small gestures of kindness like wishing birthday-wishes our get-well-soon. Add some personal flair.