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‘Through the Advocacy Looking Glass: Lessons I learned going from government relations to a government employee’ by Samantha Fox

Edited by Jasmine Spei, this blog sees Samantha Fox share insights garnered from working in the arts sector and the government.

When I arrived in Austin, Texas in 2005, there was no doubt that Austin was “Music City”. A small army of not-for-profits had formed to support the artists who arrived in this town that hosts conferences and festivals like SXSW and ACL Music Fest, and has music spilling out every night from the bars and clubs on 5th and 6th Streets. I was beyond thrilled to be working at the Austin Music Foundation (AMF), where I’d have the opportunity to provide practical supports to the city’s professional musicians.

My job was supposed to be developing curricula for professional development boot camps and lining up industry experts to advise participants in our incubator program. It wasn’t long before government relations (and “Government Relations”) began to take up more time than my “job”. I applied for charitable status for our non-profit organization and wrote my first grant applications. I met with municipal and state representatives to discuss the realities of the music industry, collaborated with other music-oriented non-profits, and worked to improve the lives of artists who were too frequently homeless and lacked access to healthcare.

The work wasn’t always easy, especially in a state that runs on the ethos of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”, but I benefited from speaking with elected officials at all levels of government – from the Texas Music Office to the Mayor’s Office – who understood the economic value of Music City and were open to hearing me out. The experience was still intimidating, and to this day I remember how much time I took getting dressed in my suit, and the heels I had bought specially, for my first trip to City Hall. They were the first of many government officials who took an interest in and treated artists with respect, and were the model of the type of government official I would strive to be later in my career.

When I came back to Canada a year later to start as the Advocacy Coordinator at the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), I was confident I’d be successful in my new role. After all, I’d taken political science classes in high school and university, I’d studied cultural policy under Joyce Zemens, and I’d achieved successes at AMF. I hadn’t intended on embarking on a government relations career, but I was beyond thrilled to get a position at PACT and thought I knew everything I needed to rock my new job. 

I was wrong. I soon realized I had little understanding of the advocacy landscape of the sector I was joining.

The biggest challenge that I faced was an arts community that had not yet come to the realization that working in the sector, whether as a practitioner or in an administrative role, required everyone to be an advocate. This was something I had learned working at AMF.  Advocacy, policy development and government relations were seen by too many people as the sole responsibility of NASOs and PASOs. Paying annual dues to their respective association meant they could cross “advocacy” off their to-do list. Fortunately, things were about to change.

My time at PACT coincided with a major shift in the way that arts advocacy was viewed and practiced. This shift was highlighted by the formation of the Canadian Arts Coalition (CAC) in 2007, and, in 2010, the expansion of Les Journées de la culture from a Quebec-only event to the national celebration of the arts known as Culture Days

The CAC created an opportunity for artists to get involved in national arts advocacy through their associations, and Culture Days expanded that involvement by inviting all artists to participate regardless of their membership in an association. In 2012, funding challenges and an eventual full withdrawal of federal support for the Canadian Conference of the Arts (CCA) highlighted the danger of relying on a single organization to conduct and commission arts sector research. The loss of the CCA lent urgency to the other initiatives that were emerging. While these new organizations ramped up, much of the advocacy workload shifted to existing NASOs. And PACT, being the rare NASO with a staff person devoted to this work (as well as fundraising, grant writing, and other duties as assigned) devoted even more time to keeping initiatives like Arts Day on the Hill and ArtsBuild Ontario going.

Throughout these efforts I kept thinking that as long as elected officials and the arts community were two separate groups, things were never going to change – and that there had to be a better way.

Since I began my career, many aspects of advocacy have become easier. New technologies, social media, and collaboration tools have created opportunities for communication that were unimaginable 15 years ago. But what has all this increased potential for advocacy achieved? Before you can champion a position, you have to take a position. To figure out what your position is, ask yourself these three questions:

⇨ What is the desired effect you want to achieve? (The focus should be on the effect and not the intent, as all policies have good intent but may not achieve their intended outcomes.) 
⇨ Is the government (or this level of government) the right institution to accomplish that? 
⇨ And if so, which government mechanism should you use to get there? Governments have a variety of policy levers available to them. Funding, either directly or through subsidization or taxation policy, is a frequent target of culture sector advocacy efforts, but governments also use legislation, regulation and public education to deliver on their policy goals, and often employ these levers in combination. 

What practical advice can I, with my years of experience, give to you to be a more effective advocate? Here are my top five suggestions that I believe can turn any committed member of the culture sector, from artist to arts administrator to board member, into an arts champion.

One: Don’t ‘Go It Alone’

I was lucky enough to be working at PACT for the inception of the Performing Arts Alliance (PAA). At the time, the five NASOs working in the performing arts (Canadian Dance Assembly, CAPACOA, – now the Association for Opera in Canada, Orchestras Canada and PACT) had a number of common goals, and often collaborated on an ad hoc basis. The NASOs had different resources and strengths, and it became apparent that we could better leverage both if the collaboration was formalized. Thus, the PAA was born. (It didn’t hurt that the five brilliant women running those institutions got along famously.) Much like you establish a community of practice for yourself, you should establish a community with shared goals and values to undertake advocacy initiatives alongside. For me, sharing the workload, bouncing ideas off other smart people, avoiding duplication and increasing the number of artists and arts organizations we represented were just a few more of the benefits of working together. (And it made work that could otherwise be dull a lot more fun.)

Two: Cast Your Net – and cast it widely

Would you ask for a donation from an individual who had never visited your gallery, attended your theatre, or taken a class at your studio? Probably not. But too often the initial outreach to government comes when an individual, organization, or sector is already in crisis. It is human nature to be more receptive to those with whom we have a pre-existing relationship. And it’s up to you to cultivate those relationships. Elected officials are the decision-makers. Having a running dialogue with them and their staff will allow you to feed into the decision-making process. And that can be a two-way street. I always had a roster of trusted members of the arts community that I could call if I wanted to brainstorm or feel out a new idea or policy change. Public servants are the experts. Many of them have been in their ministries, departments or positions for years, and have an in-depth knowledge of complex policies like cultural industry tax credits. Building those relationships will tap you into all that sectoral and institutional knowledge.

If this sounds like too much to take on in addition to all that you’re already doing, I’ll make it even easier for you:

⇨ Put your local elected officials, Cabinet Ministers and, if it makes sense where you are located, public servants working in the culture sector on your mailing/emailing list. 
⇨ Send invitations to openings and special events. If those dates don’t work out, request a special visit or tour at a time that is more convenient.
⇨ Send thank-yous. Going back to the donor analogy: if you can find the time to thank your donors, you can find the time to thank your funders. And if the funding comes from an arts council, make sure you also thank your local elected official and Cabinet Minister who keep that Arts Council running. 
⇨ And for public servants, go onto your provincial government’s personnel directory website and identify two or three individuals working on arts policy that you can introduce yourself to.

And don’t worry if you’re not getting a direct response from a Minister or Deputy Minister. Minister’s staff, Assistant Deputy Ministers, and other public servants are logging every one of those interactions. (I still remember every arts organization that ever wrote a thank you card or letter to my Minister.) Minister’s advisors have often been in their roles longer than the Minister and have an even more intimate knowledge of the sector, so they are good people to know.

Three: You Don’t Have To be An Expert

But you do have to be respectful. Before attending a meeting, read the bios of the people you’re meeting with. Ask how much they know about you, your organization, and your area of practice. Meetings are usually brief, and there is no point in taking precious time to reiterate what they already know.

While you don’t need to be a public policy expert when talking to elected or public officials about existing policies or changes that you want to implement,knowing which government levers impact the policy you’re discussing is important. Asking for a change to a ministry- or department-delivered grant program may be as easy as a signed decision by a Cabinet Minister, but changes to existing legislation, or the introduction of new legislation, can be a Herculean task involving numerous departments and years of consultations, committee hearings, and revisions. Which is not to say that bad laws, or laws that cause harm, aren’t worth changing. But it would make sense to approach the former task with a different strategy than the latter.

And, as an aside, please don’t ever use the tactic of surprise. That can be as simple as sharing an embargoed copy of a report or a news release before it goes out to the wider public. Catching an elected official off guard, or even worse, embarrassing them, may get you a sound bite for Twitter, but it can also irreparably damage the relationship with someone who would have done more for you within government as an ally than an enemy.

Four: Know What You Need, And Ask For It

Of course, everyone can use more funding. But what does “more” mean to you? The more specific you can be, the better. How much more funding are you asking for, how did you arrive at that number, and what will the impact of receiving that increase be? Or if you’re looking for a change to the tax code or a by-law, know which Act you’re talking about and be as precise as possible about the change you’re looking for. When the Ontario film sector expressed concerns about the 2017 Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, they came prepared to discuss the specific sections that they saw as problematic, such as public holidays, and how they wanted to mitigate those impacts. (In that case moving them to Mondays or Fridays to create long-weekends, a solution approved by both management and labour.) Equipped with the information, the staff at Culture Division could make a convincing case to the staff at the Ministry of Labour, and the changes were approved.

**Originally “In the Room Where it Happened” (thanks, Hamilton!), but given our new reality we decided this was the safer, punnier approach.  We hope to switch it to its original title once our health officials deem it possible…

Five: Make It Personal

When I say that anyone working in the arts sector already has the tools they need to be a champion for the arts, I know that I can sound disingenuous. I’ve spent years studying cultural policy and public administration and I’m nearing a decade of work in the public sector. But when I was the Senior Advisor to the Ontario Culture Minister and Theatre Ontario came to me with their concerns that new a Ministry of Health regulation meant to limit vaping would prevent theatres from using electronic cigarettes as props, it wasn’t my intimate knowledge of the legislative process that got the Minister onside. It was my personal story of the perils of using herbal cigarettes from my time as an apprentice stage manager in a 100-year old heritage theatre that helped convince the Minister this was a fight worth having. (As an aside, we were successful and Ontario theatres continue to be permitted to use e-cigarettes for rehearsals and performances.) As practitioners and passionate supporters, use your stories to augment any research or reports that you present.

Having worked on both sides, what do I wish for?

I would like to get away from the “us vs. them” mentality that has coloured the relationship between the culture community public policy makers for as long as I can remember. When I “left” the arts sector to work for a provincial cabinet minister I didn’t view it as me leaving “team culture” – I thought that I was making connections and learning new skills that would make me a better champion for the arts. 

The Canadian cultural policy landscape is as diverse as the country itself. Although federal decision-making was the primary focus in my role at a National Arts Service Organization (NASO), it was impossible to ignore that the decisions made by the 13 provincial and territorial governments, as well as countless municipalities. These decisions had enormous impacts on the daily existence of artists and arts organizations. When I started advocacy work across Canada was highly focused on maintaining the regime of funding through arms-length arts councils.  Although this type of advocacy was critically important, (the sector was still reeling from the 2002 decision by the Nova Scotia government to shutter Arts Nova Scotia), it left few resources to tackle other policies. Over the past 15 years, that has changed.

If advocacy is the vehicle, public policy is the destination. In her 2005 paper, What is Policy, Sherri Torjman spends 24 pages debating the point, but concludes, succinctly, that “At the end of the day, the formulation of public policy involves a process of making good decisions – for the public good.” It’s not an accident that the word “good” appears twice in Torjman’s definition. We’re all seen, and in some cases been subjected too, poorly developed public policies that caused harm.

The good public policies that need to be enacted to support art and artists are not limited to the cultural sphere. Employment policies that enable individuals to take parental leave, child care policies that determine whether parents can afford to return to work, postsecondary education policies that determine how accessible education and training will, labour policies that make workplaces safe and tax policies that impact whether artists can make a living wage all play a role.

Policy-making consumes much of the day-to-day work of governments. Some of that work is highly visible, such as the annual pre-budget consultation process undertaken by elected officials at the federal and provincial levels, but much of the work is conducted by public servants away from the public eye. As someone who has worked on both sides of the equation, political and public service, I know that every member of this team, from the Cabinet Minister down to the junior analyst is motivated to enact good public policies. 

A decade after “leaving” the culture sector to join the occasionally still foreign realm of government, I still believe that more partnerships and collaborations are possible, especially after spending four years working alongside the thoughtful, creative and passionate public servants in Ontario’s Culture Division. Just think of what we can accomplish together if all sides are open to opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. So please, reach out. Your allies are waiting to meet you.


Helpful Links

Canada – Government Electronic Directory Services

Alberta Staff Directory

B. C. Government Directory

New Brunswick Contacts Directory

Newfoundland and Labrador Telephone Directory

Northwest Territory Directory

Nova Scotia Employee Contact Directory

Nunavut Staff Directory

Ontario Employee and Organization Directory

Prince Edward Island Employee Directory

Saskatchewan Government Directory

Yukon Government Directory

Meet the Author

MC Minds

MC Minds (our blog, podcast, and videos) will inspire, educate, question, connect and journey through knowledge on arts and culture research topics across Canada.

Would you like to recommend someone for an interview with MC Minds? Contact Kathryn at [email protected].