In advocacy, which matters more – evidence or relationships? How has Covid changed the balance?

September 11, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Sometimes I wish the earth was flat – then at least, we wouldn’t have time zones. Last week I blearily zoomed in for three 7am starts to discuss the strategy of the Myanmar-based Centre for Good Governance (full disclosure, I’m an adviser). Luckily, it was really interesting.

CGG prides itself on its ability to adapt to a shifting context, which is just as well, given Myanmar’s turbulent politics + Covid. It combines some brilliant Myanmar staff with some thoughtful expats, funded by what is now routinely called ‘DFID-erm-FCDO’.

One lightbulb moment was when one of the staff involved in lobbying with politicians gently pointed out that evidence actually isn’t that important in shaping their decisions (tough message, in a project explicitly aiming to get more and better evidence into policy). What mattered, he said, is relationships – connections, trust etc. CGG needs ‘to shift from producing evidence to creating influence’.

Which changes a lot, in a programme aiming to influence the state. For example:

nodes not nerds
  • Rethinking programmes: if you want to generate evidence, you run a well-documented pilot, publish the results and then wait for an evidence-hungry state to scale it up. If you are all about relationships, it matters much more how many decision makers visit the project, or feel involved in it (on steering groups etc).
  • Rethinking hiring: you need staff that either have existing relationships or are natural networkers – nodes not nerds. Ex officials or politicians are good, or else you can emulate Coalitions for Change in the Philippines and hire a bunch of senior/retired university professors, who can march into the office of former students and ask them to do stuff, even when they are now government ministers.
  • Rethinking Comms: CGG staffers are pretty sceptical than any Myanmar politician is going to read more than a page (pretty much like British ones in fact). What works best is ‘some visuals, plus talking – 5 minutes max’. Elevator pitches and well-honed narratives, plus one slide.
  • Rethinking Media: ‘In Myanmar, the government works through Facebook – if they got hot there, they feel they have to respond’.
  • Added volatility: politicians and civil servants come and go. One of the great frustrations of lobbyists is seeing the investment in a given contact squandered when they move on/get sacked/retire. It may be worth thinking about cultivating broad, shallow relationships with large numbers of potential decision makers, in addition to going in strong on the ones currently in power.

OK, I’m over-stating the case (as usual). You need both. Evidence can provide the conversation starter – the institutional and individual ‘points of entry’, something that CGG endlessly discusses and updates. Evidence gives you the confidence that what you are proposing might actually work. Even if officials don’t read it, you’ll have more credibility if you have skin in the game – something on the ground, written up.

And of course, there’s a huge difference between evidence that is supply-driven (‘here’s what we outsiders think you should be doing and why’) and demand-driven (you have asked us for some help with stuff you want to do – here you are).

So it’s both/and, but the balance has to shift. Especially because of Covid.

Centre for Good Governance

Firstly, it’s really hard to build new relationships in a lockdown or a crisis. Fewer chance encounters, or schmoozing targets at conferences (a Zoom break-out room really isn’t as good). Anyway, in a crisis like Covid, decision makers naturally turn to people they already know and trust. So you should probably be placing even more emphasis on your existing networks, trying to cultivate people you’ve already met, rather than starting from scratch.

One way to do that is by making yourself useful in a crisis, as CGG did when it produced a super-quick public safety announcement on Covid that a grateful government rapidly adopted. Full story here.

Alternatively, go through ‘trust intermediaries’. Who do you know who is trusted by the minister or the permanent secretary? Back to the university profs, I guess.

One final point, if you focus on relationships, you should think more about the long term. People often form enduring relationships when they are young, before they come to positions of power. Then they rely on those friendships because once you are the minister, everyone lies to you or at least tries to lobby you (you’ve seen Yes Minister, right? If not, why not?). That suggests that an organization like CGG should be thinking about where to form relationships with future decision makers (whether officials or politicians) – places like relevant university departments, or staff training colleges.


And talking of Yes Minister, here’s Sir Humphrey hearing a timeless account of university attitudes to foreign students. As someone said in comments, the only thing that is dated is the £4,000 …..

September 11, 2020
Duncan Green