Making Friends and Influencing People: The External Perspective

Blog post by Suzanne Edmond, Head of GCS External Affairs profession

Thursday 21 March 2019

During what is a busy time for us all, I was delighted to have the opportunity to take stock of the progress the External Affairs profession has made at an event held at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The FCO’s Map Room was filled to capacity with Government external affairs and communications professionals getting together to network and share best practice. This inaugural event welcomed some influential and incredibly interesting speakers. Sagar Sharma, Director of Policy and Communications at Barnardo’s, Daniel Cochlin, Head of External Affairs at the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and Helen Prowse, UK Communications Lead at Square gave their perspectives on the value of engaging with Government and the improvement in proactive conversations they’ve experienced more recently.

It was an engaging and interactive panel session with many questions from our audience, and there are a few themes I thought it would be helpful to capture:

The importance of building and maintaining a two-way dialogue:

All panellists agreed that a strong relationship must be based on a genuine two-way dialogue. By keeping in regular contact, we can ensure organisations have the access they need to help develop good policy and communicate it properly, as well as Government having the expert advice it needs to do the same. Encouragingly, speakers felt there had been a positive step change in the way Government communicates with them, moving from ‘broadcast’ mode to genuine engagement and listening to what they have to say.

Getting out of Whitehall:

It’s critical that we continue to challenge ourselves to proactively go and hear directly from the individuals and organisations we’re working with. We also have an opportunity to demonstrate to external audiences our commitment to holding meaningful conversations on their home turf. Today we heard how efforts to visit stakeholders directly have been well received, especially those such as Daniel who is based up in Manchester.

Much has changed but there’s still more to do:

While great strides have been made in the way we communicate with our stakeholders, some of the panellists felt that more could be done to ensure they are kept better updated on government activity. I know that External Affairs teams across Government are doing a fantastic job in this area but we can always challenge ourselves to go further. Events like the one we held recently are an excellent place to have these conversations and I’ve no doubt colleagues will continue to raise the bar.

With the External Affairs Operating Model formally launched just nine months ago, it was great to hear that teams are already making such a positive impact. I hope that everyone who was able to join the session took a few things back with them to the departments. Mine was a comment from Sagar, that if we help plan the battle we won’t battle the plan. At the heart of external affairs is a commitment to listen to and learn from others.

Our speakers all said that they will continue to take advantage of their growing external affairs contacts across government, sharing their thinking and plans. In return, we should all continue to make every effort to engage as early as we can and proactively keep in touch. I, for one, intend to take up that offer of a coffee sometime very soon…..

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