How to: Prepare for your First meeting with a Government Official

So it’s your first time to prepare for a meeting with a government official? Great. Having a schedule pencilled in for a specific date is already a small victory, especially if the official you’re about to meet has no idea who you are, where you come from, and if you’re even worth her/his time.

We both know that the real anxiety comes from something else: how do you make a lasting impact on this first meeting? Now that is the bigger challenge. Let’s face it, the truism “First impressions last” takes a whole other meaning when it’s with an influential and strategically powerful government official you want to (need to) influence.

This simple checklist is meant for people who are new to working with the Philippine government and are tasked to schedule a first meeting with a government official. The assumption here is that you or your organization are keen to do any of the following:

  • Introduce a project or program that you are planning to implement in a specific locality with the view of getting the “blessing” a.k.a. Support from the local politician, to gain credibility among community members;
  • Pitch an idea/tool that your company or organization has been working on and see if it can either be (a) adapted and implemented in government; (b) bought for piloting purposes and possibly, streamlined across the bureaucracy;
  • Explore a possible collaboration on a priority project or program of the government unit / department that the official is running by presenting the work your organization is doing / has done.

The reasons above aren’t meant to be exhaustive. I simply wanted to highlight a common motivation from various stakeholders outside of government bodies: they want to alter status quo and influence a new way of doing things. More than that, the assumption is that your organization wants to work with government because you’re cognizant of the obvious scale and impact of their work, and the benefit of obtaining their buy-in to reach more communities.

The point of the checklist is simple: you want your foot in the door but you have no idea what to expect. So here’s what you need to prepare.

Checklist: Scheduling a meeting

Write a letter to introduce yourself, the organization you represent, and what you want to discuss. Make it concise and straight to the point. Do your research on the full name, designation, and address. Your organization or company letterhead and branding are important to help with credibility. Don’t forget to include the contact person and information from your side. When preparing this formal letter, make sure to attach the project/program concept note. Simply asking for an appointment will likely lead to a response of “Regrets”.

QUESTIONS TO EXPECT: “Who are you? Which org are you connected to? What is this for?” Prepare a short spiel that covers these questions. Even if you already sent the letter, your conversation will speak volumes.

TYPICAL ROADBLOCKS: (1) They lost your letter; (2) Your organization isn’t well-known & you need to boost your profile for fear of not being acknowledged as ‘important enough to be heard’

Work around: 1) When you know the communication channel that generates quick response times, make sure your contact person acknowledges receipt of the letter: take note of the date, time, and person who received it. This will be helpful if the letter needs to be tracked. Many meetings never happened or people forgot to go because the letter got lost (some even think: did it really get lost?) Save yourself from anxiety and focus on pre-emptive action.

2) Quick context: One of the social accountability orgs I talked to was spearheaded by a talented and passionate young professional in her twenties. One of the [inescapable] realities of engaging government is the attitude which equates age with wisdom and credibility. Ageism is embedded in the system and adding the lens of power — having the choice to listen or ignore whoever raises their voice — complicates a seemingly ‘trivial’ task of requesting a meeting. Her work-around was to get a highly influential non-profit business group to draft an endorsement letter introducing her work. That was her foot in the door for local government units to let her in and listen to her work. Look for a high power-high influence surrogate to speak for your org.

Get the contact information for the office. When you get it, ask the “gatekeeper” of the official’s schedule about the best way to communicate. Take note that the gatekeeper may have protocols in place or have specific habits for scheduling. In the context of the Philippines, people are used to follow-up phone calls. It can be a combination of telephone, email, text messaging, WhatsApp, Viber, and the like. In my experience, Facebook Messenger & Twitter DMs were eventually used when a working relationship was in place (blurring the professional and the personal, yep).

PRO TIP: Identify who the best person to talk to about getting your meeting approved. If the official you want to meet has a relatively high position (e.g. Minister or Secretary for national government, Governor or Mayor for local government), it is very helpful if you become friends with the gatekeeper of the official’s schedule. In the Philippine context, this gatekeeper can hide behind a variety of designations/positions: secretary, executive assistant, administrative officer, administrative assistant, and so on.

TYPICAL ROADBLOCK: The number you got is incorrect or the email bounced

Work around: Be as resourceful as you can get. There are oblique ways of finding information you need. If it’s an office inside a department, call other offices. Assess your own social network and leverage their respective networks.

Smile! Even if the person can’t see you since you’re talking on the phone. The tone of one’s voice can significantly alter the reception of one’s message. So smile your way into that meeting schedule and make that impression via telephone. You never know if the gatekeeper is having a bad day and needed that sunshine from somewhere.

Identify social contacts who know the people working in the office. It’s one thing to know the contact information but it’s a strategic move to get anecdotal information that can provide insight on how you can prepare better:

  • Is there someone in the official’s staff that decides or influences the government official to say yes or no to a meeting? Do you have her/his contact information as well? What is her/his reputation among specific circles?
  • Is the office culture receptive to ideas similar to yours? What are the government official’s current priorities? How does it relate to yours? What is the value add of your work vis-a-vis the official’s current priorities or mandate?

PRO TIP: Find a ‘surrogate’ — a person from the office of the official who can speak for you. This isn’t always needed but you’d have to resort to this if you’re having trouble with scheduling.

At your meeting: Suggested flow of your pitch

[image is mine, feel free to use!]

There are 5 guide questions for the flow of your pitch to the government influencer:

  1. Why is the project important for the official?
  2. How will she/he personally benefit?
  3. How will her/his department/agency benefit?
  4. What are the other parts of government that are already doing this? Cite them as an example
  5. How do they benefit? What does she/he need to do to realize the benefits?

I’m hoping this won’t be the only meeting you have. Should you be successful in collaborating with this government official and the department/local government unit, expand your vision. Map out the official’s social network and assess other offices or agencies that you are keen to work with. If your collaboration goes well, you can definitely ask her/his help to introduce you to her/his peers, thus expanding your network.

You can use this 3-pager worksheet in case you’re interested to do the full-blown pre-work: Pitch Perfect: Preparing for a Meeting with a Government Influencer.

Test the prototype and let me know about your experience! You can reach me on Twitter [ivyong_ph] for questions or recommendations.

Note: Special thanks to people who’ve chosen to remain anonymous. They get a shoutout for contributing their thoughts on this how-to blog! These individuals are local government advocates and social accountability practitioners.