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Local government advocacy: lessons from the private sector

Local government advocacy: lessons from the private sector

By Victoria Green

As one of the three spheres of government, local government most closely affects the daily lives of its residents. It is also the most trusted level of government, with a recent Essential Poll finding 42 per cent of respondents trusted their local council. By comparison, 31 per cent said they trusted the State Government, and just 28 per cent had trust in the Federal Government.

In the eyes of many, the traditional role of local government is roads, rates and rubbish. But in reality, it’s about much more than that. It’s about the services that it provides the community, creating local jobs for local people and facilitating built and natural environments with facilities and spaces that match the aspirations of its residents.

As the representative body, the WA Local Government Association (WALGA) has a vital role in advocating for all local governments. It has done this on several significant issues, such as timeframes for planning reform, tax concessions, and regional issues related to COVID-19. WALGA quite rightly focuses on general topics relevant to its member base and not the specific needs of local councils.

In recent years, some local governments have stepped up their advocacy efforts with both State and Federal Government to deliver on their priorities, particularly for infrastructure funding. But it's an increasingly competitive market as more and more local governments are advocating for the needs of their community.

As minds turn to the upcoming federal budget and fast approaching federal election, there will undoubtedly be a flurry of activity to secure commitments and funding for industry and community interests, as well as local government.

Some will do it well, and some will fail before they’ve even started.  Common mistakes include starting too late, having too big a list of asks, having an incoherent message and not being able to demonstrate stakeholder support.

So, what can local government do to stand the best possible chance of securing funding and commitments from either the State or Federal Governments?

Well, from a State Government point of view, if last year was the year of the 'shovel ready' COVID stimulus project, this year and the next few years will be mostly about WA Labor delivering on its election commitments, particularly in the areas of jobs and economic diversification and health.  Homelessness will also be on the radar. Aligning asks of government to the priorities of government in these areas will be a good place to start.

The same will likely be true of the Federal Government, post-election. But in the pre-election period, the best way to get money out of the Liberals in Canberra will be to get the State Labor Government to advocate for your ask.  Since the change of government in 2017, the WA Government has proven very effective in securing funding from both the Turnbull and Morrison Governments, leveraging WA’s status as a battleground state, in which the federal Liberals need to hold seats in order to retain government.  This dynamic will likely be accentuated following Labor’s recent landslide state election victory and the continued popularity of Premier Mark McGowan.

Local government has an important role in creating jobs, supporting market-led proposals and welcoming industry. State and Federal governments are still looking for shovel ready projects that deliver on their commitments and are popular with the community, so identifying these opportunities will continue to be necessary. Still, there is much more to it than that.

Arguably, the private sector has been working closely with government to secure funding, advocate on priorities and develop partnerships for decades, whether that’s as private companies or through industry representative groups.

Given the experience and achievements of the private sector in advocacy, there are a few things that I believe local government can learn from the private sector when it comes to advocating on behalf of its 'customers' and ultimately securing funding for its priorities.

Here are five private-sector principles to consider:

 1. Understand your 'investors'

Investor relations are essential components of private sector organisations that need to understand and work closely with shareholders and investors. What differs in local government is that the potential 'investors' are the State and Federal governments, and rather than profit, their priorities and motivations are very different.

WA Labor has been clear on its priorities. They want to create jobs in WA, diversify the economy through manufacturing and industry hubs, improve the health system, particularly mental health, and tackle homelessness and climate change. As outlined above, the Federal Government is more likely to invest if the State is on board.

Advocacy is all about finding win-win situations. If local government can find a way to support the State or Federal governments to deliver on their commitments while delivering something popular with the community then everyone wins.

 2. Know your 'customers'

Successful brands know their customers. They understand their buying habits, their preferences and what's important to them. Local government needs to approach its community in the same way. Understand what's important to them, understand both their current and future needs and get a sense of what matters most.

The City of Mandurah did this incredibly well with its 'Mandurah Matters' community engagement approach. It didn't just run an annual survey asking about facilities and amenity. The City went out and spoke to the community, ran workshops, met community groups, held events, tested ideas and got to know the people it serves. Local governments will give themselves the best chance of success if the things they are asking for reflect the priorities of their community. 

Remember, political parties poll all the time. They have a good sense of what the community wants, and so should anyone asking governments for money.

 3. Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise

Granted, the private sector is not always the best at prioritisation. Still, when it comes to advocacy, local governments need to develop a laser-like focus on its top one or two priorities and be relentless in the delivery of this message.  Presenting laundry lists of asks to government make it difficult for them to choose, and often leads to disappointment if an initiative gets funded that, in hindsight, wasn’t that important to the local government that put it forward.

Community and stakeholder engagement with your ‘customers’ can be used to develop a long list of asks, but it can also be used to set priorities.  Keep it sharp, and keep it simple.

4. Get in early

The biggest mistake we see in local government advocacy is leaving things too late. Putting in a budget submission a few weeks before budget day, or launching a public advocacy campaign after the election writs are issued.

Successful advocacy campaigns give themselves time to build a brand, penetrate a message and demonstrate stakeholder support to decision makers.

Leaving things too late makes you look disorganised, with a lack of understanding of how government works.  At its worst, it makes you look like you’re just going through the motions or doing the campaign for political objectives, rather than genuine outcomes.

 5. Government relations is not enough

The best campaigns start early and are research driven, with a clear sense of priorities, purpose and a coherent message.

But they also leverage all the communications tools and channels available to hit decision makers from a range of angles and build a sense of energy and momentum that is hard to resist.

Meetings with government are important.  If you don’t ask, you won’t receive, and government will find it strange to hear things in the media that they haven’t already heard in person.

However, the importance of building and demonstrating community support cannot be overstated.  As outlined above, this is a crowded market, and governments are being presented with great ideas and urgent problems all the time.

Activating local communities, while building understanding and pressure through the media, are often critical to the success of advocacy campaigns.

You need to get the tone right.  But, if you’re not in these spaces, you often won’t look like you’re trying, and other campaigns will get the attention of governments.

Nobody wants to hear about the problems and issues constantly (although there is a time and place for that). However, everyone needs to understand your vision and be brought on that journey.

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