Setting an agenda during an election year

Michael Comninos
February 20, 2019

No matter what industry you work in, you are either affected by government regulation, have government as a client, or rely on it as a service provider. Negotiating with government bodies can be difficult, and in order to achieve your desired outcomes it is important to understand the particular needs and restrictions of public administrations.

What is often overlooked is that these needs change according to election cycles.

The authorising environment

Central to understanding government’s changing needs is the public policy concept of ‘the authorising environment.’ This is the context in which government decisions are made. It can be thought of as the mandate, or social license, for a government to use public resources to address an issue.

This authorising environment is clearest when a politician has campaigned on a policy, and the voting public have endorsed that policy by electing them to execute their promises. If the policy is explicit: ‘Susan Politician MP will spend ‘X’ dollars on a hospital’, and Susan gets elected, the authority to spend that amount is clear.

The authorising environment is more complicated when a politician adopts a policy mid-term, in order to tackle a problem that is immediate or unforeseen (or not sexy enough to campaign on). In these situations, the authority comes from a mix of public sentiment and technical evidence.

While most people would be aware that measuring public sentiment is imperfect and open to misinterpretation, technical evidence can also contain significant bias.

This is because the government evaluates projects using frameworks which may not reflect real-world outcomes. For example, to justify the building of a rail line the key evidence base will be existing commuter volumes and the projected travel time saved. This has a natural bias towards congested travel corridors at the exclusion of more innovative transport solutions.

To negotiate with the government for your desired result you must be aware of the existing evaluation framework. A proposal must either work to fit the existing criteria or acknowledge the framework and address its central shortcomings, allowing the government to adopt creative solutions without reaching beyond their mandated authority.

While it is tempting to launch straight into a campaign or propose a project to government, it is important to first understand the authorising environment and the evaluation frameworks that will be used to justify that authority.

Advocacy Cycles

As you would expect, the authorising environment is directly linked to the election cycle. Advocacy cycles are times in the election cycle when the government will be more receptive to particular messages and particular types of projects. Even a very strong proposal given at the wrong time can be dismissed out of hand.

As State and Federal elections draw near, all candidates will be looking for big messages and promises they can take on the campaign trail. This might not be the best time to have a project delivered, but if you can position your ask so that it can become a positive announcement, there is a greater chance of the idea getting traction.

As soon as election results are announced there is an immediate shift in the authorising environment, depending both on the winning party and the size of the win. In the first year of government for an MP that has taken a clear majority, it is difficult to pitch anything that falls outside their core campaign promises. A tight win in a marginal seat is an entirely different story: the day after they pop the champagne, they will be back on the streets campaigning, looking for new ways to sway the electorate and build their supporter base.

Typically, the strongest point in the advocacy cycle is six to eighteen months after an election, as governments put in place the resources to execute their commitments, but this is always mitigated by the real and perceived strength of the governing body’s authority and the public sentiment surrounding the issue at hand.

The current shifting environment

The coming State election is a particularly complicated environment to navigate because there are so many independents and swings expected. The ABC’s Anthony Green, who has been covering State elections for almost 30 years, has recently declared his usual calculus for predicting results in the lower-house is no longer practical: “The only way to overcome the peculiarities would be to make the calculator so complex, its purpose would be defeated.”

What is clear is that the formation of Government will involve new alliances and some strange bedfellows, especially in regional seats where traditional allies are currently waging war against one another.

In order to plan a campaign or seek approvals for a project it must first be strategically framed according to the ever-changing authorising environment of the government and its election cycles.

This article includes information presented at the Masterclass "Setting an agenda during an election year". Astrolabe Group equips organisations with the tools and strategies needed to work with government to maximise public value. Get in touch with Michael at [email protected]

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