Encourage board members to learn how government works
One of the responsibilities we all have as citizens of a free and democratic society is to understand how government works. Each of us foots the bill for what our municipality, province, state or country does on our behalf, we owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to take this responsibility seriously.
This understanding will likely be second nature to any board member whose academic education included Political Science 101 or an introductory Civics course. If the board member’s educational background or work experience doesn’t provide this foundational knowledge, he or she will need to be willing to invest time and effort in self-education.
Each board member needs to take personal responsibility for knowing the following:
· Which level of government does what—i.e.: what are the areas of each level of governments’ jurisdiction?
· Which departments or ministries govern the main activities of the association’s members?
· What committees of the legislature may be involved in reviewing legislation related to the industry the association serves?
· How do new laws get passed?
· Who are the elected officials that are most important to the association and what are their backgrounds?
Most legislatures have excellent resources for answering these questions. In Ontario, Canada, for instance www.onlta.on.ca provides many resources to acquaint students of all ages with how Ontario’s parliament works, who its members are, etc. Board members should be encouraged to use these resources, to read the actual records of proceedings that relate to the association’s work, and to tune in to the video recordings of specific debates or proceedings either via the web or on TV.
Set the expectation that all board members need to read certain government documents
If your association is involved in government relations work, it’s important that all board members (and all members) be provided with links to any government documents or information that may be issued that will affect the members’ interests. This includes proposed legislation, proposals regarding regulatory changes, reports from auditors or ombudsman’s offices, and reports by outside consultants that the government has commissioned to examine certain issues.
Even more important is ensuring your board members read them. Without this basic understanding of what the government is doing, it will be harder for board members and members to appreciate why the association prioritizes certain issues over others and why it takes the positions it takes. Government relations consultants or your in-house staff or government relations committee volunteers may produce summaries of these items to help save the board time, however, links to the originals should always be provided so that all board members can be assured that the summaries are without bias. While your association’s government relations committee, consultants and/or management team are likely the only parties who will deal with the original documents in specific detail, every board member or member of the association for that matter, needs to be prepared to at least skim the originals.
Require that all board members read your Association’s position papers and correspondence with elected officials
Whether your association’s position papers and letters to government are developed by professional government relations consultants, a board committee or your own in-house staff, every board member needs to be provided with links to these items. Many associations also make a point of making these items available to the membership at large. In this case, it is even more critical that each board member read and understand any government relations documents that the Association produces. If board members or members have questions about what they have read, it makes sense to ask that they pose their question via an email to a pre-assigned individual—typically your ED or an identified board member. This helps pinpoint any gap in the member’s understanding that may have given rise to the question, so this gap can be better addressed. It allows a complete response to be prepared that links back to any original documents may be involved.
Workshops and training can be helpful, but are seldom the full story
While many government relations firms and training organizations offer seminars and one-day courses in “advocacy,” government relations, or related topics, these are never a substitute for the items above. In most instances, deriving significant benefit from this kind of training requires that an individual have a basic understanding of government before they attend the sessions. Whether delivered in a classroom environment with other organizations present or one-on-one or in a small group just for your association, these sessions are useful primarily in dispelling any preconceived notions participants may have about the role of lobbyists in the political process and why a cooperative approach with government is usually more effective than one that is more confrontational. They may also help board members understand why it is only feasible to work on very narrow range of issues at a time.
These are just a few of the most affordable ways board members can develop their skills in the area of government relations. There are others as well, such as devoting board meeting agenda time to member education, or asking that board members prepare “letters to the editor” responses to news stories that appear in their local papers or in your industry’s trade journals. The idea here is to get your volunteers thinking about the issues and then going through the process of refining their thoughts into a concise format that anyone can understand. A government relations committee volunteer or designated staff member can then offer some constructive feedback before the letter is sent out.
For more easy ideas about developing your board’s government relations competence, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.