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Straight Talk: February 2010

Tim BeckettCURRENT ISSUE

Straight Talk

In his inaugural column for Fire Fighting in Canada, Tim Beckett, the fire chief in Kitchener, Ont., and first vice president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, outlines the refined art of successfully lobbying government.

February 17, 2010
By Tim Beckett
Tim Beckett 
 Tim Beckett


 

February 2010 – Lobbying, according to the Webster’s dictionary, means conducting activities aimed at influencing public officials, and especially members of a legislative body, on legislation. Therefore, the art of lobbying is the process that we undertake to make an issue known to specific people or organizations. This process is neither simple nor swift. I have witnessed it take several years to move what was thought to be a simple, straightforward issue through the political and bureaucratic government system.

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) embarked on an intensive government relations and advocacy program as part of its 2007-2012 strategic plan. The organization wanted to ensure that its voice would be heard; we believed that our opinions and positions were important to the fire service. As leaders, we wanted to promote positive change for the betterment of the fire service and public safety.

The OAFC board of directors sat through strategic brainstorming sessions to develop a plan to move forward. We decided that we needed outside help to ensure that we were on the right path toward moving important fire issues and life-safety issues through government. With assistance from FEMSA (Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Suppliers Association), we visited with our friends to the south to examine their success and failure in obtaining federal funding, having their voices heard and influencing positive change in the fire service. The Canadian and U.S. political systems, although different in structure, are moulded on similar principles.

In December 2008, we trekked to Washington, D.C., the political hub of the United States. We embarked on a two-day, whirlwind journey to understand federal funding programs, to have discussions with the U.S. Fire Administrator and FEMA director, to attend sessions with senior advisors to key senators of the U.S. Fire Caucus and to have an opportunity to sit down with the executive representatives of the Congressional Fire Services Institute. We heard similar strategies: “Show up and make friends”, and when that is done, “Show up again and make more friends”. To influence change, organizations need to be present at many events – heading to Parliament Hill or your provincial legislature once a year isn’t enough; showing up regularly, as the politicians and key staff members become familiar with faces and names, goes a long way to making your important issues known. Attend your local council meetings. These kinds of appearances by the fire service need to happen regularly and often.

Although showing up is a major component to the process, first and foremost you need to know your issues and know them well. Make sure you take time to do the research, anticipate questions may face and know if there has been opposition. If you fail to take time to know your issues, gather your facts and understand them inside and out you risk your integrity, respect and credibility. Any one question or comment that you cannot answer or that you answer inadequately will diminish your credibility. Often, you have just one opportunity to move an issue forward; be prepared. Part of being prepared is to establish your plan to move forward. It is imperative to identify your key issue(s), anticipate resolve, know key stakeholders and their positions, recognize the costs and impacts associated and know all the objectives and possible outcomes of the issue.

Lobbying isn’t about persuading people to do something by the force of your personality. It’s about giving the correct people timely, pertinent information, in the best way. The fire service has the respect of the public and politicians but we can’t simply use the uniform to persuade government and politicians to enact change. We need to deliver all the information to the people who make decisions.

Focus and limit your issues; bombarding the government with a multitude will only bury your key issue. Experience has shown that more than three issues at any one time is too many, although the ideal number may vary depending on the circumstances and magnitude of the issue at hand. Three issues or concerns generally allow government to remain focused and are not to cumbersome for your organization to manage.

Take time to learn about your government’s makeup and understand its key players, their advisors and staff, and their roles. Who can schedule the meeting you need with the proper people in attendance? Who can assist with information flow to ensure it reaches the intended destination?

The political system is and daunting. People and positions can change without warning. structure. An understanding of the government cycles of bills and resolutions, along with knowledge of how a budget transpires, is essential.

Finally, forget the fire-ground teachings that you need to deal with issues in five minutes in order to effect change. Dealing with governments requires patience, fortitude and stamina. Stay the course. Stay focused. Remain patient and the successes will come.


Tim Beckett is fire chief with City of Kitchener and is first vice-president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. He has 24 years in the fire service and a degree in public administration from Ryerson University in Toronto. Contact him at tim.beckett@kitchener.ca.


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