Building relationships of trust with policy-makers is at the heart of public affairs. But how can you build those relationships?
It is important to appreciate from the outset that, just as with any other relationship, time and effort needs to be invested. Sometimes the policy-makers may feel like a very needy friend but if you want to build trust then that is part of the implicit agreement. You need to think ahead and recognise the benefits of the relationship rather than worrying about the short-term pain or reacting adversely to the requests for immediate information.
The simple fact is that the policy-makers do need your help but your task is to help them appreciate that. You have to demonstrate that your expertise and insight is invaluable to them and, in essence, helps them to better do their jobs, avoid mistakes and deliver a better product / policy.
So how can you build trust with politicians and policy-makers?
- Be pro-active – do not wait to be asked, instead show some initiative where it comes to engagement. Seek out the opportunities that could range from PQs, debates, select committee inquiries or consultations.
- Deliver what you promise – when engagement has taken place then make sure you deliver, make good on the promises you make. A period of silence and / or non-delivery risks the relationship even if it is a more established one.
- Think about their needs and priorities, not just your own – if it looks like you are being self-centred and are only building the relationship for your own selfish ends, then the relationship is put at risk. Such a transactional exchange isn’t really a relationship at all and will have no long-term future. So you need to think about the pressures on them – timescales, who may be making demands on them, what they need to deliver etc.
- Your wider reputation – politicians and policy-makers will consider your general reputation. A poor reputation makes relationships more difficult to establish in the first instance. Over the longer-term, a dip in reputation can mean that friends become more elusive and are less likely to listen to you. That is especially the case if the reputational challenge goes to the heart of your capability / what you actually do. The ramifications of such damage will ripple throughout a network.
- Keep focused on what makes them tick – this is especially important when thinking about political engagement but MPs will appreciate contact in areas of interest to them, related to constituency matters etc. On the flip side, being too political or not thinking about the wider political setting, forgetting that there are such things as elections (!), will risk relationships.
But of fundamental importance and what should drive the engagement at all times, is demonstrating that you have the expertise and insight they will find useful. Coming back to the issue of reputation, the more that this same message can be delivered through all communications, the better. Thought leadership can often play a useful role in building that reputation as well.
There are no short cuts to building political trust but it is worth the effort.