Some of you may not remember, but many years ago, DSC started a campaign to recover from the Government the £420m they had annexed from the National Lottery Community Fund to pay for the Olympics.
We wrote to several MPs to ask for their support. One, the MP for Aldershot, wrote the rudest response I have ever read. My Head of Marketing, to whom it was addressed, came to me seriously upset about what this MP had written and really anxious that we’d apparently offended a Member of Parliament.
The MP concerned (and I’m paraphrasing to give you the gist) had replied that we should get our noses out of the government’s business and concentrate on doing our own work better. Once I’d managed to control my temper, I responded to him very politely and pointed out that on his website he had indicated an interest in hearing from people who needed his help and support which was why we wrote to him and we were puzzled as to his reaction. He then doubled down replying that it was no business of ours to write to him at all and that he was elected and we were not.
Disregarding for the moment the fact that his was one of the safest Tory seats in the country – so it’s highly unlikely that he was elected on the basis of competency, but more because that’s how the folk of Aldershot typically voted – I must admit to being really shocked by that response.
I learned a valuable lesson. However, not knowing in more depth the character and interests of those in the public space, whether that’s an MP, a local Councillor or a civil servant serving at either a national or local level, can really hamper your ability to get your voice heard.
If we had known more about him, we might have found a different way to be heard. He clearly had an over-inflated sense of his own importance, and if we had realised that, we might have written something a bit more personal in more flattering terms, which he would be more likely to be responsive to.
Of course not all public servants, either elected or employed, are like him. In fact, many of those I have met or engaged with are actually really decent folk, stretched and harassed, trying to do a good job as they see it.
But the lesson still stands. We have a better chance of getting our voice heard if we build relationships, take the time to understand the environment in which those we are trying to influence operate, and personalise our asks.
Don’t get me wrong. His response was totally dickish! There is simply no excuse for that level of rudeness and arrogance – but to be clever at being heard we have to recognise that people with ‘big’ job titles are ultimately human beings and we have to work with that knowledge.
This is why our Engage Conference on 19th October is so timely. We are heading into a General Election, the need for us to have our voices heard is urgent because manifestos are being drafted and Local Authorities are preparing themselves for whatever comes next.