“What people often forget is that public policy is not a finished thing, but rather an ongoing process.”
With over 10 years’ experience working with six ministers and a backbencher, Christian Dunk is certainly a seasoned political adviser. From the pitfalls of making assumptions, to the power of transparency in relationship-building – Christian shares an insider perspective on what makes advocacy effective.
What is your experience as a political staffer?
I worked with the Coalition government from 2011 – 2023, barring a brief stint in the private sector. I worked for six ministers and one backbench member with varied experiences, spending the past seven years focused on environment and energy policy. Most recently I had the privilege to serve as Chief of Staff.
In my opinion, if you’re interested in public policy, working as an adviser is the best way to shape outcomes, give advice, and have that advice tested. Ultimately, you work at the pointy end of decision making.
How can advocacy groups build meaningful government relationships?
It’s important to be well acquainted with who you are meeting with. Looking at inaugural speeches is a great way to get a sense of who someone is.
Don’t make assumptions about the position of the person on the other side of the table. Often, people will say, “I know you wouldn’t be interested in…”. But this isn’t always the case. Never assume that a certain conversation is closed. Put all your cards on the table and you never know what idea might spark an opportunity or solve a problem.
Alternatively, if advisers are doing their jobs well, they will be upfront about what is a priority and where the government stands on certain issues - there is only so much bandwidth. If this doesn’t match up with your interests, you can start to look for other areas to align on. There will always be something to connect on, whether it is large or small. The important thing to remember is that policy is a dynamic process - it is never fixed and never static. Always be alert to any opportunity - if you don’t take it, it may close and not come back.
What’s the best way for advocacy groups to prompt engagement?
Stakeholders often assume that if they simply turn up to political fundraisers, they may be looked upon more favourably. This is a flawed assumption and usually isn’t the case. While there will always be formal processes with government like consultations and meetings, some of the best opportunities come from trying to engage with government stakeholders in a more informal setting, such as a roundtable, panel discussion or similar forum. Get people into a room where they can share ideas, observations, and options that can inform a live process or stimulate the government’s thinking about something that wasn’t originally on its radar. What people often forget is that public policy is not a finished thing, but rather an ongoing process.
How do you consolidate external stakeholders’ feedback?
It depends on how you conceive of your role as an adviser. Some people think of themselves as gatekeepers to the Minister, where you control the flow of information and decide what gets through. Alternatively, you can think of yourself the way I did, as a facilitator to support the Minister to make the best possible decision.
This way, you see every stakeholder as having a legitimate voice. You may not agree with their views, but it is your job to consider where they are coming from and why. Once you synthesise these factors, you can present this to the Minister so they can make an informed decision.
What factors do you consider when advising politicians?
I think of it as a decision tree where there are several things to consider. I would first ask if it is a government priority. Has the government committed to this particular policy? Next, I look at the views of other colleagues, as well as any relevant parliamentary or cabinet processes, or department advice. I then consider the pros and cons of choosing a certain pathway.
The practicality of a decision is another important factor – there is a difference between what policy thinks it can achieve versus what is possible in the real world. It’s often a question of cost and time. A lot of it comes down to implementation, so you must consider what stakeholders you need to get on board. Finally, there is the obvious political dimension. Ultimately, you must consider how a range of different people will respond to a particular decision.
How can advocates make decision-making easier for an adviser?
Transparent and robust engagement is key. A good adviser will always be available to pick up the phone, but you should be aware that the conversation may not always go how you would like it to, but clarity is always better than obfuscation. It’s best not to come to a meeting with a ten-slide PowerPoint. Instead, try to genuinely engage in conversation on common areas of interest or disagreement.
It’s also important to be upfront. Quickly get to what your organisation is about, what you are trying to achieve, and how it aligns with or differs from what the government has prioritised. Be honest about any conflicts and suggest a solution or options for resolving it.
What are common pitfalls advocacy groups fall into when speaking to advisers?
Again, it comes back to being transparent and robust. Government engagement, like any sort of engagement, takes time to build a level of trust. Walking in with the mindset to strongarm outcomes or cut a deal on the spot won’t achieve this. It’s also best not to overdo
or oversell your proposition, come armed with facts and a reasonable basis – not assertions – on which government stakeholders can consider what you say.
Final thoughts for advocates….
Essentially, keep on your toes, keep your ear to the ground, keep engaging, and you never know what opportunity might arise.
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