For most people, it’s not essential that you love your job but it helps. In the world of politics, having a passion for both governance and ‘the game’ is critical.

And of all the staffers that work in State Parliament, the number one gatekeeper is the Chief of Staff or CoS. The CoS manages the staff, helps develop strategy and has the experience to steer the Minister through the machinations of the bureaucracy.

For advocates, building a relationship with the CoS is often more important than regular engagement with the Minister. So from that perspective, what are the pros and pitfalls of dealing with key staffers?  

Edward Martin has broad experience working within Government as well as the corporate sector. He’s worked as a portfolio adviser, a communications consultant, a corporate affairs manager for Australia’s largest general insurance company and is a professional Rugby Union referee.

In March 2017, Edward took up the role of Chief of Staff to the Hon. Melinda Pavey, Minister for Roads, Maritime and Freight. This week, Edward takes time out to chat with Advoc8 about his experiences as a Chief of Staff.

Edward, how and why did you become a staffer?

I was finishing my Master’s degree and started to take an interest in politics as the election rolled around. From a young age I had a passion for public policy and exchanging ideas so naturally ended up in politics, which has been a great platform to make a difference to the State by delivering long-term reform.  

What does a day in your shoes look like?

Every day is so different, which is what makes the job so interesting. It generally starts with a run, reading the news clips and planning in the morning before stakeholder meetings and the issues of the day take over. I’m lucky to lead a very capable team that has complete autonomy to get on with the job - we love coming to work.

What are some of the effective things industry advocates can do to help deliver their key message to a Minister’s office?

First and foremost it’s imperative industry advocates get a deeper understanding of the Minister that they’re meeting with. Reading a Member of Parliament’s maiden speech or first major speech as a Minister will give them an insight into the person that they are meeting, what their values are, their background and history. Also, scanning their social media pages to see what their recent narrative is will help inform advocates about the individual that they want to meet with.

Second, advocates where possible should aspire to provide a solution or have some initial ideas to present. Its far more constructive coming with a couple of solutions than a long list of problems that don’t align with the Government’s priorities.

Third, avoid a sales pitch with lengthy PowerPoint slides. The meetings that resonate the most are with the groups that have done their research on the Minister, have a clear purpose and can articulate the issue by localising the problem to the electorate or regional level. All politics is local, so try to break down complex ideas and map a way forward.

Fourth, be frank, honest and open. The best meetings cut through all the noise when advocates are direct as to what they want or need. This transparency does pay dividends because the meeting is more efficient and everyone is clear on expectations.

What are some of the most common pitfalls for advocates in meeting with Ministerial staffers? Are there any fatal mistakes in terms of harming a relationship with the Ministers office?

The most common mistake is a lack of research and a clear purpose for the meeting. For example, meeting with the wrong Minister’s office, or having a lack of awareness regarding the government’s priorities. This ends up wasting everyone’s time.

Also think carefully about your timing as to when you meet. For example it’s best to avoid asking for funding the week before the Budget is due. Instead, know the yearly milestones and lock them in the diary early and plan ahead.

How important is building a relationship over time with a Minister’s office?

It is important to remember that building a strong relationship takes time. Fostering stronger relationships are the ones that give a sense of confidence and certainty about the future. It’s the classic ‘no surprises’ test that will go a long way to building trust, respect and managing expectations.

For example partnering on a piece of reform and collecting industry data and case studies will help prosecute the case for change.

What are some of the acceptable and effective ways of building a relationship with a Ministers office?

Communication is two way, so providing a mixture of contact will help ensure the relationship is engaging and reciprocal. Where possible consider finding time for a site visit to show advisers how your business or community group operates. Offer to do a joint statement on media opportunities or third party endorsements, and consider other ways to engage, rather than just meetings.  

Being able to foresee an issue and give a heads up as well as suggest a way forward will go a long way to building great relationships.  

It’s not always about bringing along the most senior person in the business, instead consider introducing subject matter experts who can answer technical questions and give the best advice.

Off all this, if there was one thing you would encourage advocates to get right every time when dealing with a Minister’s office, what would it be?

There is no one size fits all template but what is important is to do your homework on why you’re engaging on a particular topic and have a rich understanding of who you’re engaging with.