The economic landscape is rapidly changing, characterised by decentralised power structures, smart digital infrastructure, big data, automated/robotic manufacturing, hyper mobility and a sharing economy. The decentralised nature of the new economy is increasingly impacting the capacity for effective communication between industry and government.

In the days of Holden and Ford, big business had dedicated teams working with government to ensure their needs were understood and met. While those days aren’t quite over, the new economy – increasingly driven by small and medium-sized business (SMEs) – will require a new approach.

Our latest Collective Exchange event explored how we can effectively centralise the conversation and reinstate channels of communication between business and government. The Exchange was led by a panel with diverse experience and exposure, which included:

  • Bryn Davies, employment precinct planner, Fishermans Bend Taskforce and former senior advisor to the planning minister
  • Maria Rico, economic development, City of Moreland
  • Sean Sammon, chief executive of Bastion S&GO

The discussion that ensued generated a number of valuable insights for SMEs seeking to engage government more effectively:

Use what’s on offer

From council economic development units (including Moreland) to AusTrade, hands on support, training and networking is on offer for business. Using these services builds rapport, provides insight into the government machine and demonstrates a willingness to work with government. If you’re not sure what’s on offer, council staff like Rico are a good place to start.

Define your priorities

Understand what outcomes are most important to you and do some research to understand who in government has the appropriate powers to support your outcomes.

Letters are (still) in

“A well written letter can go a long way,” Davies said. Every formal letter must be read and actioned by a ministerial advisor. Try to keep the letter positive, congratulate the minister’s efforts and pitch the benefit of your idea, not just the problem.

Find a community

Who can you best resource to support your efforts? Who else might be united by your priorities? Geographically located groups can form a powerful base, as was the case for the Made In New York group.

Treat the relationship like a marriage

Even if your communication with government representatives is only digital, keep it going. Don’t just reach out with complaints and needs. Invite politicians and government staff to events where they can connect with your sector and community to develop personal relationships. Sammon compares government engagement to a long-term marriage or a partnership.

“You’re conciliatory 90 per cent of the time and 10 per cent of the time you might have a massive blow up. Then you work out a way to forgive each other. But you’ve gotta have that 90 per cent of the time” as a foundation.

(Side note: Facebook seems to be losing its power. One hundred likes or comments used to have ministers jumping, but this is no longer the case.)

Know your local MP

When you need their support, let them know. Offer to meet with their advisor first. This will help you get the lay of the land and shows the MP you’re serious.

Find a reformer

Stereotypes aside, there are clever, strategic, open, curious people employed within all levels of government – people who are pushing for change from the inside. They are not easy to find. Leverage your networks, and remember, to create change these “insiders” need you as much as you need them.

Governments love pilots

Projects that are bound by time and/or scope are less risky and therefore easier to get up. Can you use a pilot to deepen a relationship, provide proof of concept or open doors?

Be polite

Simple but effective. Working with and within the slow, clunky machine of government can be frustrating for everyone. Staffers are people too and they are working within an archaic system. They constantly have their doors knocked on and inboxes bombarded, so a dose of kindness can cut through.

Compromise is key

Yes, government is (mostly) slow. Patience will be required. Consider compromise if it’s offered and put your own compromises on the table. Getting a run on the board, even if it’s not perfect, will deepen your relationship and pave the way for future collaboration. Don’t forget to breathe … deeply.

Seek signs of hope

Government is evolving. Strong signs of change include citizen juries, open data platforms in federaland local government, and programs like the Business Research and Innovation Initiative where nine SMEs are sharing in $8.75 million to develop solutions to public sector challenges. Efforts to communicate and collaborate are being made from within the system but not always within parameters we might be looking for.

So where does all this leave us?

The world is changing dramatically and rapidly. The way we engage with government really hasn’t. Engaging with government is perhaps a little like retrofitting a building. There is an existing structure in place and improvements must be made within these parameters. However, every time we work to upgrade a building, we raise the bar and encourage deeper changes in the system.

As Sammon pointed out, “you can only solve a problem for government if the relationship exists”. We need to create and maintain the relationships – digital or otherwise – and watch for moments of alignment between our priorities and government needs.

Amy Brand is a senior consultant at HIP V. HYPE, a group of companies utilising design thinking to resolve more sustainable, socially responsible and intuitive solutions for our cities.

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