This article was originally published with The Manila Times on January 31, 2019.
Having spent years in government service, I saw how crucial the culture and practice of making and maintaining strong connections was.
I always knew that networking was important, and I understood its value in everyday life. In the beginning of my service, however, I had those “why me” questions in my mind. After all, I was not a public official, but a mere civil servant. I was a lawyer, one that worked in the back-office, conducting research and drafting and negotiating policy, for the then vice president of the country. There were far too many people that had more influence or clout with the real political movers and shakers, and yet people suddenly want to exchange business cards, make small talk, and try to break the ice.
Then it hit me — good connections are king, and good relations are queen. While I didn’t see the value of others having my contact information, the people I knew, and had established friendships with, that was the real value. Anyone can collect at least a thousand business cards in a year, but going beyond that two-handed exchange of information, reaching out and actually sending an email or making a call, that is the real first step to expanding a meaningful network. Getting the card is like knocking on the door, but good relationships are what determine whether you will be let in.
Applying those relationships to a business context, and one sees the immense value in proper government relations. The concept is nothing new, coming from the rise of lobbying in the US. Today, government relations is so much more.
Work with, not against government
The same goes for businesses, and the role of government is highlighted more today. A McKinsey study showed that government ranked second among corporate stakeholders, those with actual power on economic value, beating other stakeholders such as the workforce, investors, suppliers, among others.
That same study showed that executives recognized the need for further strengthening engagements with governments. Yet, it also showed that there are many with negative sentiments, even saying that more government involvement is bad for business. The depth of regulatory regime varies depending on the industry, but who would know this matter best other than the government relations professionals?
Technology is changing faster in this age than ever before, a fact I have written about numerous times in my previous columns. The fourth industrial revolution and the sharing or gig economy are just some examples of how this change is affecting the status quo.
That rapid pace of change is a significant challenge to the businesses that run on those business models. For instance, part of my research as an AsiaGlobal fellow in Hong Kong was to try and find the elusive middle ground for sharing economy businesses to operate under an antiquated regulatory regime. Different countries had laws that affected these businesses in various ways. Some had no legal means under their older laws to allow for the operation of the likes of Uber and Grab, simply because the law operated on a franchise system for taxi and taxi-like operations. Another key example completely banned the operations of AirBnB, because the laws did not allow for short-term renting of property.
Today’s government relations practitioners act as advocates, reaching out to the government, speaking on behalf of the businesses, and helping government understand and find a suitable means to regulate or allow the operation of these new business models.
They also act as educators, helping those with the political means to understand how these new technologies actually work, before discussions can be made to bring together a forward-looking policy. Remember the Senate hearings on Facebook in the US? That was a perfect example of the point I am making. If those funny interactions were only on the business model of Facebook as social media, imagine the interactions when we have to discuss deeper technological advancements such as artificial intelligence or blockchain.
I do not wish to seem arrogant, nor do I say that those policymakers were ignorant. After all, no one is omniscient, except God. Fact of the matter is that we all have our areas of expertise and cannot be expected to know or understand everything.
In my next column I will discuss the other important aspects of government relations. For now, Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!