Engaging effectively at Holyrood

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Robert McGeachy gives top tips to third sector organisations on how to engage with politicians

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10th December 2018 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

The current parliamentary session promises to be a busy one. It will feature a number of high profile debates in the Scottish Parliament on policy areas such as the economy, health, education and the environment. The ongoing fall out from Brexit, and from the arguments for and against IndyRef2, are also likely to influence the policy and legislative landscape at Holyrood.

The new parliamentary session will also see MSPs undertake the scrutiny of key legislation including the Planning Bill, the Climate Change Bill, the Fuel Poverty Bill, the Transport Bill and the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) Bill to name but a few.

Significantly, the SNP government has no majority in the Scottish Parliament, and in any of its committees. The Scottish Parliament also has a well-founded reputation for openness and transparency. Against this background, the new parliamentary session potentially offers third sector organisations and community groups major opportunities to help shape and influence policy development and legislation in the Scottish Parliament, and at Scottish Government level.

Robert McGeachy

Robert McGeachy

Unfortunately, third sector organisations and community groups often find it extremely difficult to engage effectively with the Scottish Parliament, and with the Scottish Government. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including limited capacity and expertise, as well as to a lack of confidence and experience. The overall effect is that many third sector organisations, which should have a strong voice in influencing policy development and legislation, are rarely heard in the Scottish Parliament, or find that their public affairs activity has little, if any tangible effect in terms of influencing policy and legislation.

The Scottish Parliament should be accessible to everyone in Scotland. I have jointly written a book, and trained people in third sector organisations, in how to make the most of opportunities to influence policy and legislation in the Scottish Parliament, and at Scottish Government level. Below are outlined the Top Ten Tips to help third sector organisations and community groups to make the most of these opportunities to influence policy and legislation over this parliamentary session.

1) Develop public affairs strategies which understand politics and politicians. This includes adopting a cross-party approach, and engaging with politicians of all parties (even if you did not vote for them!). Adopting such an approach will increase your chances of influencing policy development and legislation, particularly as the Scottish Government lacks a majority in the Scottish Parliament, and in its committees.

2) Define what you want to achieve, and ensure you can communicate what you want to do, and why, to Scottish Government ministers, to the opposition parties and to individual MSPs, in a clear and concise fashion. A good exercise is to try and summarise what you want to do in 55 words. If you cannot manage this, because what you want to do is too complex or too vague, then you probably need to rethink your activity!

3) Adopt clear ‘policy asks’, i.e. the specific actions or steps you want the policy makers to take on your behalf. Basing your asks on robust evidence and proven best practice will help to maximise support for them from MSPs and at Scottish Government level.

4) Don’t expect politicians to have all the answers. You know best about the issues which matter most to you. Be proactive - tell Scottish Government Ministers and MSPs what you want them to do. Invite them to meet you to find out why these issues are important. Don’t just wait, and hope they show an interest.

5) Keep track of what’s going on. Most of the media will tell you about what’s going on in the Scottish Parliament after it has happened. If you want to change what’s going to happen, monitor the Business Bulletin (the timetable of what’s coming up) on the Scottish Parliament’s website. This will provide you with details of forthcoming debates, committee inquiries, parliamentary questions and other business relevant to your policy and legislative interests. Ask your local MSPs if they are going to be speaking in, for example, a particular debate relating to health, and tell them what you would like them to say.

6) Don’t be scared of legislation! With the current political balance in the Scottish Parliament there are major opportunities for third sector organisations to secure significant changes to the new legislation relating to, for example, climate change. Tell the politicians about why particular provisions in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill need to change. Work with the government and/or with the opposition parties to draft amendments for Stage 2 and, if necessary, Stage 3 of the bill, and work with members of the committee to secure their support for the amendments to secure these changes.

7) Careful thought should be given to ways in which your organisation can work in partnership to deliver significant parts of its wider public affairs strategy, including its response to key legislation such as, for example, the Planning Bill or the Transport Bill. Partnership working to progress Amendments, i.e. changes, to legislation will demonstrate to the committee members considering the specific bill, and to the Scottish Government, that your organisation has wider support for the issues it is raising. This will, in certain circumstances, make them more likely to support your amendments to the legislation, and increase your chances of changing the law to secure your policy aims and policy asks.

8) MSPs (and their staff) do read Twitter. It’s a great way to ask questions about what they plan to say on an issue, or how they plan to vote. Remember the more polite you are to them, the more likely they are to respond.

9) Cross Party Groups in the parliament offer third sector organisations the chance to secure cross party support for their policy asks. Try and play an active role in those CPGs most relevant to your organisations and its interests. Where your organisation delivers a presentation to a CPG avoid taking a ‘show and tell’ approach, and instead focus on the actions and steps which you want to ask the CPG to agree to, and to take forward on a cross party basis.

10) Thank MSPs when they do something right. MSPs get a big mailbag when they do something their constituents don’t like, but don’t often get thanked if they do something right. Let them know if they’ve done well, even if they aren’t from the party you normally support. It might encourage them to do more along the same lines in the future.

By following these tips you can maximise your opportunities to help shape and inform policy development and legislation in the Scottish Parliament, and at Scottish Government level over the current parliamentary session.

Robert McGeachy is an award winning public affairs professional, and the joint author of The Public Affairs Guide to Scotland: Influencing Policy and Legislation published by the Welsh Academic Press