Engaging with decision makers in South Yorkshire

Sirea is our Partnership and Training Officer and in this blog she talks about Target’s work building a local Frontline Network and engaging with decision makers.

Obtaining the attention of decision makers or people of influence can be a tricky process. If your role does not require you to move in those circles, it can feel like a daunting challenge to seek out or even speak to decision makers about issues which are of a real concern on the ground. It can be the same when approaching people to speak at your event. Good speakers can have a positive and enlightening impact on your events, but good speakers also need to feel convinced that your event will be worthwhile investing their time and energy into.

If you are lucky enough to get their ear, it can be even trickier articulating what you would like them to hear and what you would like them to do! Council meetings and large corporate events can be quite intimidating and often when we are invited to attend and participate as frontline workers we can find ourselves outnumbered by people who are slightly removed from the frontline and mostly involved in policy and strategy.

Since developing the South Yorkshire Frontline Network, I have begun to connect with and make links with a number of decision makers and influential speakers. Initially it was difficult to work out who I needed to speak with and what message I wanted to convey, on behalf of the Frontline Network in south Yorkshire. The issues raised by frontline workers were broad and varied so it was difficult to know where and who to begin with. There was also the challenge of finding out who was in a position of influence, as well as finding the appropriate opportunities to connect with those individuals. I realised the only way to strengthen and develop the network and its influence, was to promote the network through the appropriate channels. This involved developing key relationships, attending relevant meetings and events and communicating the message of the frontline as widely as possible.

Based on my experiences I would like to share some tips and examples of engaging with key decision makers and influencers:

• Attend networking events such as AGMs, presentations, Launches etc. Always have some leaflets / business cards with you to give out and talk about your event / network and overall objective. I attend many events through my work as well as outside of my work. On one occasion I attended an evening dinner event where I was seated next to the Lord Lieutenant’s Aide. Through casual conversation about each others work I discovered that he was also a non executive director for the NHS Foundation Trust. His expertise was in Mental Health legislation. Co-incidentally I was looking to theme our next event on this topic and was looking for someone to come and speak. I put this question to him and he said he would be delighted to come and speak at length about the legislation and the rights of patients and carers under the mental health Act.

• Check the local Voluntary Action events pages for any events such as ‘An audience with….’. This is where I first attended an audience with the Shadow Minister of Housing John Healey and Kevin Barron MP. It was at this meeting that a number of us raised concerns around Universal Credits and how this would impact upon people who were either homeless or vulnerably housed. From this event, John Healey agreed to meet with a smaller group of us who worked in the voluntary sector and had specific housing related concerns for our clients. We met with him again on a separate occasion and raised our specific concerns around the Universal credits. He made a note of the concerns and promised to raise these in future debates within parliament.

• Use existing contacts to establish new ones – I know people who either work in the different local authorities or who have contacts within them. I subsequently emailed those people to find the relevant person. Sometimes you need to email several people before you get to the one who is the most relevant to your cause. It was through emailing a number of people that I found the Housing solutions manager. She is the person responsible for implementing the Homeless Reduction Act (HRA). She agreed to attend our event and speak about the HRA and collect the views of frontline workers regarding ‘key things to consider’ when implementing the HRA within the council.

• The housing solutions manager left our event with a great impression and asked to be invited to future events. She also wanted to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the network so that she could ensure that the needs of customers were being met with regards to accessing accommodation. She also talked about our event to other staff within the council, as I then received an email from the council to be a part of an operational Partnership group to ensure the smooth roll out of universal credits. This group led me to meet the manager for the regional DWP who I also invited to come and give an awareness session on UC at our next event.

• Always follow up email requests either with a telephone call or an email. For one of my events I really wanted someone from a national organisation to come and speak. I emailed the relevant manager whose details I found from their website. I didn’t hear anything back for a few weeks. So I decided to call him. At first he said that as they were a membership organisation and had over 700 member organisations across the country, it wasn’t possible for them to go out to all events. I then explained in further detail about how we represented the views of a wide range of organisations and how the views of our frontline workers could form part of their national campaign on an issue that affected our frontline workers too. He then agreed to come and deliver a presentation at our event. It is important for organisations to be able to see how their involvement with you will also benefit their overall cause too. It has to be of mutual benefit and one that fits into the bigger picture.

• Using social media to promote the network is also really good. I have had people in influential positions within the council approach me after seeing something I posted on LinkedIn about the Frontline Network. Someone in a senior position within local authority housing wanted to be added to our mailing list for the Frontline Network so that he could share with others.

My overall message is that every single person you come across could be of influence in some capacity. The key thing is to always be prepared with your pitch. It is important to understand the different levels of decision makers and influencers and pitch your case at the correct level. We can often see the influencers as the commissioners, elected members and strategic directors but in reality there are many other people in various positions within organisations who have specific roles, and they also influence policy and practice. It is important to identify those individuals and maintain a connection with them.