Why you should continue engaging with Government in the lead-up to an election

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The Victorian Government is about to enter a caretaker period in preparation for the state election… business doesn’t need to stop, but there are some additional considerations to ensure you don’t compromise Government’s position (or your own).

caretaker period

With the Victorian Government entering a caretaker period at the end of this month in the lead-up to the state election, businesses have been asking me whether this changes how they should engage with Government. Several have assumed that it means Government ‘shuts down’ and there’s no point doing business with them… No!

The Victorian election will take place on Saturday 24 November 2018 and it is standard for Government to adopt a caretaker position in the 4-6 weeks leading up to this date. The imminent Victorian caretaker period will begin with the expiry of the Legislative Assembly at 6:00 pm on Tuesday 30 October 2018 (or an earlier date if the Legislative Assembly is dissolved earlier) and will continue until such time that it becomes clear that the incumbent government will be returned, or a new government is commissioned.

While the Victorian caretaker period will certainly impact some Government activities, it’s important to note that the administration of the public sector will continue.

It is always important that relationships be built on mutual respect and neither party acts in a way that could compromise the other. This is particularly important during a caretaker period. Continue to build relationships with Government, but make sure you do not compromise the government person you are engaging with (in any way).

What is a caretaker period?

Quite simply the term caretaker period refers to conventions adopted by successive state and Commonwealth governments that ensure the public sector takes good ‘care’ of the function of Government – recognising that with the expiry of Parliament, the Executive Government cannot be held accountable for its actions in the usual manner.

The key objectives of the caretaker conventions are to:

  • preserve the autonomy of an incoming government (in the event that the incumbent government is not returned)
  • ensure the state’s resources are used appropriately and not to the unfair advantage of the incumbent government, and
  • protect the political neutrality of the Victorian Public Service (VPS).

Thus, a caretaker government can perform normal administration roles; however, it cannot take any action that could compromise the policy position of a new government, in the event there is a change of government.

In particular, during the caretaker period:

  • the Government must avoid making or implementing major policy decisions that are likely to commit an incoming government
  • the Government must avoid making significant appointments
  • the Government must avoid entering major contracts or undertakings
  • intergovernmental negotiations and visits are to be appropriately managed, and
  • the apolitical nature of the VPS is maintained.

What does this mean for businesses that want to engage with Government?

Examples of actions that could compromise a new government include:

Major policy decisions. During the caretaker period, the Government will cease taking major policy decisions, except on urgent matters and then only after formal consultation with the opposition.

Major contracts or undertakings. The Government will avoid entering major contracts or undertakings during the caretaker period. If it is not possible to defer the commitment until after the caretaker period for legal, commercial or other reasons, the opposition can be consulted, or agencies could deal with the contractor and ensure that contracts include clauses providing for termination in the event of an incoming government not wishing to proceed. Similar provisions cover tendering.

Existing tenders, in particular those that represent major policy decisions or major contracts.

In the case of tenders and grant application processes, government agencies should warn potential tenderers and applicants about the implications of the election and the possibility that the tender or grant might not proceed by using a disclaimer message, for example:

In line with the caretaker conventions, the incoming government will determine whether to proceed with this [tender/grant] process and [enter into the contract/award the grants] after the caretaker period.

[Applicants/tenderers] should be aware that:

– all information about this [tender/grant] process represents the position of the current government only, and is subject to change, and

– the incoming government may decide to not proceed with this [tender/grant] process.

Furthermore, it is very important that senior public servants, for example Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries, and officers in influential or prominent positions, exercise good judgement when asked to speak at public functions during the caretaker period.

For example, in the case of controversial issues, officials should decline invitations to speak. In the case of non-controversial issues, officials may speak, but should explain that the Government is in caretaker mode and that they will limit their statements to factual issues and matters of administration, and expressly avoid publicly explaining or promoting policies during the caretaker period.

The caretaker environment may be a little different, but the wheels don’t stop turning.

I firmly believe there is never a wrong time to begin engaging with government. Effective engagements with government take time, sometimes up to 12 months. Therefore, if a business is serious about government then they need to start early. However, to ensure you don’t compromise (even unconsciously) the government representative here are some rules that businesses should heed when trying to engage with government during a caretaker period:

  • Don’t use the engagement to influence government thinking around existing or new policies. Caretaker period is not the right time to do this.
  • Don’t expect to speak to Government about the progress of major projects, including those that have received budget funding.
  • Don’t push Government on the timing or progress of tenders or any procurement.
  • Don’t expect to be able to meet with senior public servants.

However, do use the time to build a relationship, to understand the role and function of the agency and requirements they may need to support the effective delivery of outcomes to citizens in the future.  While Government won’t be able to commit to much during these discussions they will certainly find the engagements valuable.

Here are some other reasons why you should continue to engage with Government:

Government must still get on with the business of the day, which includes delivering on published, approved strategies and policies. Government will still need industry support and direction on how to deliver against these strategies. If you’re not sure where to start in engaging with Government during caretaker period, align your service offerings to published strategies.

Public service roles are largely separate from the ministry; that is, they are generally not influenced by changes in government. Therefore, the contacts you generate during a caretaker period will most likely still be there post-election – though there is a chance they may be in a new department!

Government generally slows down after an election (particularly when there has been a change of government). If you want to start generating real quotation opportunities, you need to start in the months leading up the election. Then, when post-election the Government is ready to actively engage with industry once more, you will be in the prime position to capitalise.

If you’re not doing it, your competitors will be.

What type of procurements will Government run?

Generally speaking, in the two months prior to the election the Government will run more transactional procurements that don’t commit an incoming government to a change of policy or political direction.  Transactional procurements are lower risk, lower complexity and, in most cases, are conducted under established contracts or approved procurement plans.

For hints on where to look for procurement opportunities during caretaker mode go to:

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