Six tips for officials on working with civil society

group of people having a meeting

This is a stock photo of people having a meeting. Photo by on

I recently met a young human rights lawyer who is starting a government job, and who asked for advice on working with civil society. Her question made me realize that while there are many tools for capacity-building for activists on how to advocate with officials, I’ve never run across a capacity-building program for officials on how to work with civil society.

Having lobbied more government officials than I can count, and served for a few years as an official in an international organization, there are a few things I’ve noticed about officials who are good at this:

  1. They are used to getting yelled at, they keep their cool, and they do not take it personally.Sometimes it may seem that no matter what you do, you are yelled at by angry activists. The officials I’ve seen handle this well keep their poise because they seem to understand that the activists are themselves in turn getting yelled at by others — their community – who have real and legitimate needs. And while it’s no fun for anyone to be the target of public outrage, the closer you get to the grass roots and away from the professional lobbyists, the angrier people tend to be, so anger is a sign you may be getting past the power brokers and hearing from the real community. And when you get back to your desk, the fact that the constituency was upset can be source of leverage for those trying to move needed changes forward, against opposition. As Public Image Limited put it, “anger is an energy“…
  2. They show human empathy– Faced with civil society pressure, many officials get defensive, try to deflect responsibility, and may come across as a little robotic. But showing human empathy to civil society activists in a crisis — just responding authentically as they would to any colleague facing difficult challenges — can be a powerful way to defuse outrage. If showing empathy is difficult, just taking notes demonstrates that people’s concerns are being taken seriously by someone who is interested in getting the facts straight. That may help outraged people to simmer down, and focus on the facts.
  3. They identify tangible things they can deliver on and follow through– Not all activists have a clear sense of what an institution can and cannot do, and may come with a long list of unrealistic expectations (to be fair, when you started working at your agency, you may not have had the clearest idea of what was and was not feasible, either). Officials I’ve seen who are effective at managing civil society meetings have an eye for and home in on small, easy fixes — things they can quickly commit to delivering on (for example, “Give me your number and I’ll connect you with my colleague who can get your client on second-line HIV treatment quickly”). They also give activists clear, practical tips on what they need to move things forward (“If you can email me three bullet points based on this hundred-page report, I’ll try to get that language into the director’s speech tomorrow — no promises, but I’ll try”). Effective officials also clarify when they can report back and then — really important step — actually do report back on what they promised to do. Which brings us to the next point…
  4. They are trusted because they only say things they believe to be true– Many officials are sent into a meeting with a statement that represents the management-approved, Communications-vetted version of whatever mess has brought civil society to their office. As you sit at the podium reviewing it, you may realize with a vertiginous sinking feeling that this is a work of fiction that will never fly. Officials who have credibility with civil society put down the canned statement, and strictly limit themselves to only saying things they believe to be true. If some of those things turn out, as facts emerge, to not be true after all, your credibility will remain intact if you’ve built up a reputation for honesty about everything else.
  5. They share information when they can– The currency of the world of politics is information, civil society has a lot of that, and the officials who are good at this swap non-confidential information with those they trust. But one warning: as an official, anything you say or write will almost certainly be repeated, forwarded, published, and may be used against you. So better avoid criticism of others (I used to be ridiculously frank in my emails and learnt this one the hard way).
  6. Share food and drink if you can. It’s basic human courtesy (going back to point number 2), and it can help to break down suspicion and hostility.

The world needs more progressive and effective officials, in every institution. I hope others will share more practical tips from their experience.



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