Understanding Governments

How did a Boheme like me become an expert in working with governments – I will never understand. I think somewhere I took a wrong turn. In some alternative universe, I am a rapper making fancy collaborations with Drake or Justin Bieber. Allas, the universe decided differently and for the last 15 years, I have either been in government or worked for wíth government. Governments are peculiar animals. Impenetrable fortresses to some, extended family to others. Even though in recent years the State (and therefore governments) have lost their monopoly on power, they are probably still the most dominant force in most societies. Corona has countered the trend, and government is back with a vengeance. While lobbying and certainly political activism sometimes feel like you are waging war against governments, you better learn how to work with them or suffer the consequences. Here are some pointers by someone who would rather be rapping. 

Open for business 

You would be surprised that most government officials are very much open to business. You are just one email away from a coffee and a good conversation. Civil servants operate within a political context and within a hierarchy and therefore come with a built-in risk calculator, however in general they like to let the outside world in. Moreover, just like most people, civil servants love to talk about their work, their pet projects. They love meeting up with knowledgeable interlocutors that speak the same jargon. Inverted; they don’t like nosey people looking for answers that can be found through a random Google search. Being well prepared is, therefore, a condition sine qua non. Another thing; Civil servants are not naive. They know you want something out of the conversation, so state your intention at some point. So where do you find these unsung heroes, these busy bees that keep the system running? Most governments have either address lists or organograms. You need to locate your guy/gall in the scheme of things. Here is an example of the Dutch Ministry of Health and the same for its EU equivalent; the DG Sante . In the UK there are some great informative websites like Understanding the Civil Serviceand Whitehall Explained. The European Union has its own phonebook; Who is Who EU

The informal needs to become formal 

Whatever your key-asks are, and no matter how nice the informal chatter was, it needs to turn into a formal decision. This means that whatever you are asking for, needs to fit into policy, legislation, decisions, budgets. Everyone can agree with the problem definition and even with the proposed solutions, but if it can’t be formally implemented all your efforts are in vain. I always keep repeating; success means text. If the decision isn’t written down in some formal decree it didn’t happen. This has far-reaching ramifications for your campaign. In fact, the solutions are very much narrowed down to just a few options if you look at it from this angle. One example is (if money is involved) that it needs to fit in budgetary possibilities but also subsidy criteria. But also regulations about public tenders. I was once in the situation where a minister agreed that something needed to be done but he/we couldn’t think of a way to bend the rules to actually help us (read allocate money towards our problem). You might remember the House of Cards episode where Frank Underwood declares unemployment in the United States an ’emergency’, and proceeds to use $3 billion from a Disaster Relief Fund to finance a pilot program called America Works. In real life, the government agency governing the fund objected to this stating this would not be possible under current law. Which I think proves a bit how governments think (trying to get into a brawl with fake characters because the story doesn’t fit the rules and procedures) He was facing the same problem as we do; your solution needs to fit within existing legislation. 

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Competences and turf-wars 

Government institutions are very much like breathing, eating, living human beings. They have egos. The turf wars in Brussels are legendary. One department thinks it should be leading a policy initiative. You need to be sensitive to this and not ruffle feathers by inviting the wrong ministry or on the contrary; by not inviting the right ministry. The same goes on individual levels. Make sure you include and exclude the right people. There is no playbook for this. You need to develop an instinct for this knowing who your friend is and who you need to keep at bay. I have seen situations of civil servants using lobbyists to gang up on another ministry by taking it to parliament. Yes, this makes for great anecdotes but no you don’t want to be part of these Game of Throne scripts. Keep it boring. 

You need to master the boring; no surprises 

I have worked as a Government Account official which is a side branch of lobbying. My role was to be in constant contact with the ministries and answer all their questions. There I learned the importance of predictability and consistency (read being boring). Governments and their civil servants hate surprises and they loathe people putting them or their minister in a position of risk. Apart from being predictable this also means mastering some skills like calendar management, agenda-setting (literally making agendas and sending them around), keeping notes and writing timely memos. Exciting? No. Superlobby? Yes. On the contrary, civil servants hate surprises, especially if this their minister, media or parliament is involved. 

The Minister reigns supreme 

Within governments, ministers are the alpha and omega. The point of gravity around which all the other planets orbit. Civil servants, units, and departments are there to serve the wishes of the minister. The whole apparatus is there to serve and protect the interest, the policy intentions and basically the political life of the minister. That doesn’t mean that civil servants will not do things that are counter to the interest of their political master. Indeed I have witnessed civil servants leaking stuff to protect their pet projects or simply because they have a score to settle with their chief captain. However, these are rare instances. A lot of words to explain that if you can’t get your way with the civil servantry you have three options to escalate your problem; the media, parliament and the minister. The last is of course the most preferred option as he can overrule all objections made by civil servants further down the ladder. Moreover, while it might cause a bit of friction this option will not damage your relationship as much as going to the media. 

Institutional memory 

A final note on institutional memory. Government institutions don’t forget. So don’t mess up. This is especially true for the European Commission which has the institutional memory of an elephant. You might be in the position that you are going to have to take the blame for something your predecessors did. This also holds true for good relations. A good reputation will linger in institutions. There will be times that you will have to go against your own government on specific issues. When you have diverging views in Brussels for example. These have been the most difficult cases in my life as the State is the most formidable of opponents and there is no chance of beating them in a game of arm wrestling.