Dear NDP MLAs and Ministers:
Congratulations on the start of your first legislative session as government, and on all your skill and hard work and vision that led to this opportunity.
New challenges are ahead and I know we are well equipped to deal with them. But here are some additional suggestions, among the many I know you will receive, about how to help run a good, progressive, and successful government in B.C. This advice is based on years working with politicians and governments in many jurisdictions. I hope you find these suggestions useful.
• Be bold. As you know better than anyone, a lot needs to change in B.C., and quickly, because of years of bad policy and neglect. But here’s another reason: Bold stands are needed to get people to know you and understand what you stand for. We once did a series of focus groups for a mayor of a major city who was trying to win re-election. Everyone in the groups had a positive impression of this person, but no one could remember one thing they had done as mayor. As we could have predicted then, the mayor lost in the next election. If we aren’t going to let our opponents and critics define us, we need to have a clear, bold position defining what we are about, what we’re doing and for whom, even if this means taking some risks. If in four years we ask average people what we’ve done and they can tell us, that will be a predictor of winning again. If we get blank stares (or worse, hear them repeat our critics messaging about us), we will be in trouble.
• Listen and Research. Know what people really think. Poll and conduct focus groups to hear what the average person thinks, both in general and on our key policy moves. Good political opinion research can inform and help you make better decisions and plans, giving you a much deeper understanding of the public opinion landscape in areas you are working on and how to communicate best. Opinion research is not there to decide your agenda or policies of course, but it can help inform them. Good politics shouldn’t be “data-driven” as many people are fond of saying these days, but rather “data-informed.” Listen and understand well, using the tools that work best. But then, armed with this information, make sure decisions are driven by your judgment, strategy, political commitments and overall vision.
• Communicate. It’s sometimes not as easy as it seems. Communicating well takes time and it takes planning. It should be formed out of an overall strategy, with a written and agreed framework, and should outline your main strategy and goals as well as your primary and secondary messages. I was surprised, working for one government, that when we asked communications staff in key ministries for their comms plan to inform our work, we were often told there wasn’t one. Whatever your place in the government, you need a plan to guide and inform your communications.
• Broaden the tent, and the comfort zone. We need to appeal to and include more than the traditional NDP base. Business people, young people, marginalized communities, entrepreneurs, the whole anti- or apolitical class (people who pay little attention to politics, often for very good reasons) and many others — are all constituencies we need to represent and try to win over. We should listen, respond, seek advice and involve those constituencies and the people from them. Just because they haven’t been in our corner, or campaign offices, before doesn’t mean they can’t be brought in now. This could be key to building a voting coalition to help govern for many years to come. We should reach out to activate people who haven’t chosen the NDP, or politics, in the past, but who have much to offer. If we look around the offices and meeting rooms in government, or in the party, and we don’t see some new and different recruits, we’ve missed an important opportunity. We should break out of our comfort zone.
• But don’t forget the base. This seems obvious, but too often I’ve seen the noise from critics, pundits and media be overly influential, particularly those pushing for a more conservative or cautious agenda. Politicians sometimes try and appease these voices at the expense of the voters who got them there (and who may keep them there in the future). Sometimes what our core voter wants is tough to deliver, and brings attacks, but nobody said it was going to be easy. Undoubtedly there will need to be some course corrections along the way. But our voters will forgive errors and necessary changes as long as we maintain our central approach on who and what we are working, and deliver our key policies and commitments. Our core voters aren’t the only ones who matter, but from an electoral standpoint, they are the most important.
• Find advisers. Here is a key predictor of future political success: politicians who have close senior adviser relationships win more elections than those who don’t. When George W. Bush ran for president in 2004 he had a core team that had been with him through his entire 20-year political career. But Democrat candidate John Kerry pretty much had to put out a want ad to find a campaign manager. That alone could let you predict the outcome of that election. It’s surprising how often that scenario plays out at all levels in politics, producing poorer decision-making and losing campaigns. Whatever your place in the government, you can benefit from taking the time to build those key advisor relationships. But it’s more than just a question of elections. You need key people to help advise on your many decisions, to tell you to stop worrying about things, or maybe to start worrying about other things. Someone trusted who can spend a day on an issue when you might only have half an hour. Your staff are crucial, of course, and may fill that role. But they may also not have time for a full political read on an issue. And even if they do, little is certain in politics; that’s why you need more people in the room and more debate and advice on key issues from people you trust.
• Activate a ‘Reference Group.’ If you are an MLA or minister you can set up a volunteer committee of key informants to check in with you regularly on an informal basis, your “kitchen cabinet” to use an older term. This can be a great sounding board, while keeping your key local contacts and campaign people plugged in. This broader group can become a way to solicit advice and assistance from people who you feel can be helpful to you strategically, and to keep you informed about what people “out there” think, and how you are doing with them. Your past campaign team is a good place to start, as are respected people from your professional or personal life, or your community. Almost anyone you ask will do this. You get free helpful advice, and keep key people in the loop and ready to help when you need it, including during the next election.
• Headlines don’t matter. Well, at least not as much as we sometimes think. We all care about the instant feedback that the next day’s (or next hour’s) headlines bring, and we hate critical press. But having done many tracking polls through many news cycles, I can tell you they are a lot less important than they might seem. Most of the time they don’t move the needle at all. Of course, nobody wants a bad story and media coverage is important. But take the long view. A week or month of bad headlines is something to worry about, but a bad story here or there happens. Let it slide and move on to something more important.
• Mistakes. They happen and everyone needs to be allowed to make them. If you want to stifle an organization (or a progressive government or ministry), be hard on errors. People grow cautious and, ironically, can make more mistakes, sometimes simply through inaction or delay. We need to accept mistakes, own up to them, and understand that they are part of the process, and go hand-in-hand with rising to challenges, ambition, creativity and risk-taking. The easiest way to make no mistakes is to take no chances, and we can’t afford to do that, either.
Of course, there is no magic formula, but these are some suggestions that I hope help make the work ahead of us more successful. I wish you all the best in your important roles. And good luck.
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