It's just the vibe: soft skills in the art of government-business relations
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
"It’s just the vibe of the thing.”
- Denis Denuto, The Castle
“Principle #1: Build strong relationships ahead of time. During negotiations, understand what your counterpart cares about.”
- Paul Fisher, “Lessons From Brexit on How (Not) to Negotiate”, Harvard Business Review, 2020.
“When a country has been governed by a close-knit group of politicians and civil servants working in collaboration with business and labour groups, they can reduce some of the uncertainty (surrounding policy) because of the mutual trust of their ongoing relationship.”
- Prof Avinash Dixit, The Making of Economic Policy: a Transaction-Cost Politics Perspective, 1996
Defining what the ‘vibe’ is in a relationship can be difficult, particularly when trying to define it in the context of how a government interacts with society.
Just ask Denis Denuto.
In the iconic Australian comedy The Castle, the hapless solicitor Denis Denuto invokes the term ‘vibe’ in court in an attempt to describe the underlying principles of fairness and justice implicit in the Constitution of Australia.
Of course, Denuto makes a hash of it.
But trying to put one’s finger on the ‘vibe’ in government-business relations is a similarly challenging task.
You know it when you see it but trying to define it can be difficult.
I’ve had my own Denis Denuto moments in government-business relations.
I distinctly remember during one meeting a government operative offering to get out a Ouija board and summon the ‘spirits of the MoU’, after we had complained that an unexpected government decision went against the intent and spirit of an industry-government agreement finalised barely weeks earlier.
Everyone, it seems, is a comedian.
While at the time we didn’t succeed either in trying to invoke the ‘vibe of the thing’ to defend our position, ultimately, a bit like Denis Denuto, in the end we won the day on that issue.
Yes, the ‘vibe’ can be a fickle thing in government-business relations.
I was recently invited to appear before a hearing of the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport’s inquiry into the approval processes for new drugs and novel medical technologies in Australia.
Amongst other things in my hearing I, perhaps foolishly, again invoked the ‘vibe’.
But those experienced in the practice of government-business relations will tell you that such things are important.
I am firm believer that one of the best things that can help the sometimes tense and difficult negotiations between the business sector and government is to have a good vibe between the parties.
As in any important relationship, investing the time to develop a level of trust, communication and respect is vital for when the times are tough or when things go wrong.
If you’ve already built these important attributes of a good relationship, they can be brought to bear to help discuss and solve problems.
You’ll hear the same advice from government relations consultants, international trade negotiators, marriage counsellors or priests: invest in the dialogue and relationship when things are good so that there’s a bedrock of understanding, communication and trust for when things go wrong.
The ‘vibe’ in relations surrounding access to medicines
In my submission to the Australian Parliamentary inquiry, I compared the convoluted and arcane policy system surrounding access to medicines issues to a car.
You can have a great car with multiple moving parts and lots of functionality, but if the car is not serviced regularly, if it is not given a regular grease and oil change and not given a good inspection and safety check now and then, things start to go wrong.
The challenge for health systems, industry and government is to have sufficiently well-developed relationships between the parties operating around that system.
While things may go wrong and there may be disagreements, arguments and even slanging matches, at least a level of trust and engagement underlying all of this allows constructive dialogue to continue.
With a good vibe in the relationship, business benefits from understanding government priorities and processes better, and politicians and government officials benefit from better understanding how businesses develop and supply medicines and vaccines to the community.
As I sometimes tell people, if the first time you’re meeting people in government is when you have a crisis, then it’s probably too late.
If you’re doing government-business relations properly, you should have some sort of respectful relationship and open channels of dialogue available to you before you need to use them.
And that goes for people in government as well as in the business sector.
The character of the relationship
As Denis Denuto (and perhaps the British Brexit negotiators) discovered, defining the ‘vibe’ can be difficult.
The Oxford dictionary defines the vibe as “a person's emotional state or the atmosphere of a place as communicated to and felt by others”.
Unfortunately, definitions like this aren’t exactly helpful for program evaluators in government or senior executives in business when doing performance reviews or trying to measure things in a Gantt chart.
I've had more than one discussion with a senior business executive questioning why there were no 'deliverables' in the first six months of a new industry-government initiative. At the time, I've had to remind people that the point of the initiative was just to improve dialogue and understanding over the long-term and that it might take some time for the benefits to appear obvious. Years, even.
Getting the vibe right in a relationship between governments and businesses can be more art than science.
The things I think about when talking to people about the ‘vibe’ of a relationship are things like:
Understanding where the other side is coming from. You might not agree with them but understanding their position can help enormously.
Recognising that the other side are human beings too and respecting that. It sounds obvious, but sometimes just pausing and thinking about this for a second can help mend fences.
Shutting up and listening. You can often learn so much sometimes just by not saying anything but letting the other side talk. Knowing when to shut up and listen rather than try to push your point of view down someone else’s throat is a skill that not everyone has mastered.
Finding out what keeps the other side up at night. When negotiating a deal or finding a solution, stop and think about what the other side’s objectives and fears are. Not to exploit them, but to understand if there’s a way you can help them solve their problems.
Try to be clear about your own position while also understanding how flexible your position might be. You’d be surprised how many times businesses walk into a room with governments or public agencies and when asked ‘So, what do you want?’, they don't actually know.
While you can’t always define it, measure it or even see it, understanding the vibe of a relationship can be key to achieving a successful outcome when working with governments and businesses.
Even Denis Denuto knew that.