How To

Talk to N.S. Bureaucrats

How to Ask the Government for Money

Tony Lamport
Tony Lamport had a 25-year career with the Nova Scotia civil service, including being a senior strategist for economic development, and finishing as senior advisor to the government on sustainable growth, working with the ideas of circular economy and sustainable prosperity. Tony is also a steward of Wayside.

If you just can’t avoid it, sometimes government funding is worth the risk of breaking your leg as you jump through many hoops. As a recovering bureaucrat who has unintentionally created, I’m sure, many hoops, I speak from experience, which I share with you here.

Riding motorcycles, writing for a living, and seeking government funding are among the things you should only do because you must, because life without them would be too painful. If you can live a good life without being involved with any of them, I suggest you do so. But if you just can’t avoid it, sometimes government funding is worth the risk of breaking your leg as you jump through many hoops. As a recovering bureaucrat who has unintentionally created, I’m sure, many hoops, I speak from experience. At least, hopefully to my credit, I was aware of how and why I was doing it and tried to manage its effects. In my career, I funded hundreds of millions of dollars of worth of projects

This essay is to help ease the way for you in asking the government for money if you must, and hopefully make you more successful if you do.

First, understand your project’s needs as much as possible. Not just financial but also in terms of human and other resources, allies and expertise. Expect the unexpected. Picture the project in your mind as it might unfold, in as much detail as you can. Another method is to back-cast. Go in your mind to the successful completion of your project and look back at the sequence of steps it took to get there. Make note of what that success required.

Next, find a government agency or department and program you think might fit your need and help to provide these things. Identify and interview the bureaucrat who is the program officer before you apply, if you can. Some programs are too large, too basic and involve too many clients for this to be practical, but if a fair amount of money is involved, it’s always best if you can.

Often someone is a director with overall responsibility for several programs but sometimes there is also another being who works for him or her who may just look after the one program and is known as the program officer.  Ask the program officer to describe the program purpose for you and listen carefully to how committed and intimate they are with the program. Listen for and later note key buzzwords that get mentioned, emphasized and/or repeated.  Make sure you listen carefully for them because you’ll use these in preparing your application. Are you hearing “innovation” or “social capital” or “lean logic”? Whatever sounds like the important language of the program goals and guidelines will have to appear in your proposal.  You’ll make sure they are used judiciously but thoroughly in the application because often evaluators will tick off these buzzwords as they come across them as a way of doing evaluation, rather than looking at the program as an overall organic entity. Doesn’t mean they won’t do that but they may not. And they may do both. Almost certainly they will favourably recognize the buzz words that were in people’s minds, possibly their own, when they created the program guidelines.

Some of the things a program officer will generally look for is how well you understand your own project and the difficulties and challenges you’re likely to face. Are your goals realistic and is your budget sufficient? What kind of a team have you been able to assemble to carry it out. In doing their due diligence they will have to satisfy themselves that anyone who may examine your application after they do would agree that they were reasonably competent and able in risking the public’s money by giving it to you. Also, that what you were trying to accomplish was something the public would also see as worthwhile.

One of the ways they can be reasonably sure is if you have community support. The good opinion of successful people makes their decision appear less risky. Do you have the support of your immediate community as well as the larger community? For instance, if you’re working in aquaculture do you have the support of the aquaculture community? And if you have the support of the scientific community and fishers and the public at large, as well, you are a very good risk, indeed.  Make sure you document all the support you have at whatever level.

When you are meeting with the program officer mirror their body language and demeanor if you can without looking ridiculous. Copying body language takes a certain amount of sensitivity and skill to accomplish without getting caught and/or looking silly but it can work very well to connect you with someone. For instance, lean forward when they lean forward to make a particular point, to show you understand the importance of what they’re saying. For more explanation look at this wiki entry  and for more specific techniques consult Mr Google.

Dress as well as you can whenever you meet with the program officer or his/her boss. Generally, you can dress better than they do but try to never dress a lot more casually. Don’t ask why, just go with it. Whatever level of elegance you manage to pull off make sure the details are right, like no stains or major wrinkles visible. Not because this is a fashion show, but because on some level these dressing slips will communicate a sloppiness and lack of attention to detail, that could transfer to your project.

Thoughtful as it might honestly be, never offer anything personal or political that could be misunderstood as an attempt to indirectly influence the outcome. It happens and it rarely works out well.

Write well. Eloquence can and sometimes does effectively conceal our mild incompetence, or at least a lack of readiness. A sparse, simple, accurate style can carry the day with a confident tone even when your project is a little sketchy.  There are grammar and spelling checkers, so no excuses for sloppiness.

If you don’t receive the funding and you’re absolutely sure you should have, you have options. But my advice would be to walk away anyway, unless it’s a matter of life and death, yours or someone else’s. The chances of a happy outcome even if you win are not by any means zero, but slim. You can appeal to the next level of authority which may be the executive director. Usually this person will back their program officer just as good management practice, after talking it over with them. This is my experience based not on certainties but on probabilities. Your experience could be different if your cause is just. Your next option is the Deputy Minister in charge of the department or the Minister. If you feel that you have some political sway you can try this route but it’s a tricky one. Publicity is the kryptonite of civil servants because it’s usually bad and confirms all the bad things the public believes about them, true or not. So, permanent government officials can be very easily placed in a vulnerable position by going to the press. And civil servants have no way of defending themselves publicly. But when you unleash strong forces you can create a risky and complex situation. Without a bullet-proof case for outrage that you can defend impeccably things can come back to bite you. If you can prove inappropriate practices, demonstrable bias, political or personal favouritism, bureaucratic errors you may have a case. But the vast majority of civil servants are doing their job reasonably well in spite of systemic and structural barriers. Some have gone to sleep or were never awake. May you only encounter the awake ones on your journey. You’ll know them when you meet them. But always recognize the somnambulant kind when you encounter them, as well. Don’t be afraid to waken them with your bright enthusiasm and energetic diligence.

Keep good records with notes of all calls, conversations and text exchanges. When asked for more information be prompt – give exactly what was requested or a little more, but rarely does it work to give a lot more than you were asked for. It means more to be read and processed. And it also begins to look like you don’t understand what’s expected.

No gifts for bureaucrats and don’t pick up the tab for meals or drinks. They have an expense account of their own.

Make sure you’re strong on evaluation and realistic in your budget. Count not just the things your project does but the actual improvements it makes to the environment, the economy or to people’s lives.

Best of Luck.