Five Minutes with a Staffer – Mitchell Potts

“Whatever your cause or whoever the government, treating the government as a potential partner is the best place to start.”

“Whatever your cause or whoever the government, treating the government as a potential partner rather than an adversary is the best place to start.”

From responding to a newspaper job ad after university to becoming Chief of Staff (COS), Mitchell Potts shares the opportunities (and challenges) a career in politics can hold. With more than 10 years’ working in the political scene, including eight for the previous NSW Coalition government, his expert insights reveal how advocates can best work with politicians and staffers.

Who did you work for in politics?

In the NSW Government I served as Chief of Staff to Geoff Lee for four years, initially in the Skills and Tertiary Education portfolio and then the Corrections portfolio. I previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Jillian Skinner in the Health portfolio and have worked in federal politics for Marise Payne and Jane Prentice.

How and why did you become a staffer?

Back when people still read physical newspapers, I got my start the old-fashioned way – by applying through an ad in the politics section of the Weekend Australian!

When I was growing up our family had some pretty lively political discussions and I was always encouraged to contribute which was a really formative experience. Then at university I studied economics and was fascinated by its application to government policy. Public policy done well can be such a force for good.

I wanted to work somewhere that I could contribute to good government decision-making that helped people in the real world. Working for the politicians who make those decisions seemed like a good place to start.

What did a day in your shoes look like?

Plenty of jobs are marketed as ‘no two days are the same’ but few live up to the cliché quite like working in politics!

I’ve lost count of the number of times my daily ‘to-do’ list got derailed by a 6 am phone call. Political roles can be intense and, if you’re not careful, all-consuming.

It sounds simple, but good staffers create value when they apply their skills to things that their Minister/MP needs doing. Given my economics background, for me that often meant refining policy details to maximise cost-effectiveness and impact. As I rose to COS it became more about working directly with the Minister on formulating strategy and applying it to policy and day-to-day issues – but as a former policy wonk, I sometimes found the policy detail hard to leave behind!

Through all of this relationships are key – as COS I’d obviously be speaking with the Minister multiple times daily, but also working directly with the agency head and their office, other senior public servants, the Premier’s office, my own office, other political offices, the Opposition and the crossbench, the parliament and its committees. All that’s before you even get to the many and varied interests of external stakeholders from unions to business, non-government organisations and the general public. My phone certainly got a good workout!  

What can advocates do to effectively build relationships with a political office?

The first one is simple – be proactive. Political offices lack the time and resources to come to you for advice, so don’t wait for them to knock on your door. Knock on theirs.

Secondly, what you are proposing should help the government solve its problem. This is often an issue of framing, there is nothing wrong with advocating a position that benefits your organisation, but you need to make the case why it benefits the government too. This requires a bit of research into the government and the Minister’s objectives, past statements, pain points etc., but time invested on how to ‘sell’ it to a political audience will pay dividends.

And thirdly, talk to the people who talk to the Minister. Decisions are rarely made in a meet-and-greet with you and the Minister. And sure, Ministers make the decisions, but before they do they take advice from their own staff and from their departments. If you can convince a COS or an agency head, they can effectively become your advocates in the room where the decision is actually made.

What can be frustrating about engaging with stakeholders? Are there any common pitfalls they can avoid?

Good Ministers and their offices will want to work with you to reach an outcome that benefits everyone.

A common pitfall to avoid is a failure to plan ahead. If the first stakeholders have heard of you or your issue is in the middle of a crisis, it’s probably too late to get the outcome you want. And if you’re thinking of sending a pre-budget submission within four weeks of budget day, save it for the next budget cycle. Due to decision lead-times, you’re better off getting your submission in at least 3-6 months before the budget.

What are the challenges when formulating policy and considering stakeholder feedback? What can advocates do to assist this process?

When engaging with a Ministerial office, and especially a Minister, be direct and concise. Leave the bloated generic slide deck at home and come prepared to directly discuss what you want from government and how it will help the government solve a problem.

Good relationships take time and effort. Establish contact early with someone from the office, and even if you don’t need anything right now it’s good practice to check in every few months or so to share something interesting or to bounce around new ideas.  

Of the organisations/stakeholders that you found helpful or effective, what made them so great to work with?

Whatever your cause or whoever the government, treating the government as a potential partner rather than an adversary is the best place to start.

The best stakeholders took the time to develop a relationship and worked with us to solve problems. This created the trust and goodwill for government to be more willing to help them solve theirs. They became a sounding board for new policy development, which helped us with early-stage testing of ideas and gave them a deeper insight into the government’s forward plans.

To discover more about who’s who in Parliament, Advoc8 tracks extended biographies for MPs and critical insights on their background, interests and factions. Contact us for a demo or to discuss how we can support your organisation in developing best practice advocacy.

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