Government and business, we need each other

As government and businesses are challenged by the COVID-19 outbreak, government still needs the business sector to support its response to the crisis and keep other programs going. We explore how to support and engage with government during this difficult time.

Government and business always need each other – and now, during the COVID-19 outbreak, we need each other more than ever. But how do you go about engaging government during this crisis?

engaging government during this crisis

I’m writing to you from the comfort of my apartment, and I wanted to share with you a neighbourly note that was just slipped under my door:

In these strange times of social distancing, we want to reach out and say hi!

How are you?

Do you need anything?

Please let us know if you do, we’re happy to help. 

Governments around the world, including ours, are grappling with this unprecedented crisis. And, with borders closing or closed, shelves emptying, businesses closing and anxiety levels skyrocketing, our relationships, including government business relationships, are going to be the lifeline that will get us through these uncertain times.

How will government change?

Victoria has declared a ‘state of emergency’ under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, as have other government jurisdictions. In Victoria, the Chief Health Officer has been granted additional powers, such as detaining people, searching premises without a warrant, and forcing people or areas into lockdown if it is necessary to protect public health.

The initial state of emergency period is for four weeks (ending midnight 13 April 2020). There are provisions for further extensions in the Act, provided the entire period does not exceed six months. All indications from the Victorian Premier are that it will likely be extended, and additional emergency powers are being considered through declaring a ‘state of disaster’.

The state of emergency will have a ripple effect on the inner workings of government that businesses will need to navigate while engaging government during this crisis.

Critical incident protocols

When a state of emergency has been declared and normal rules can’t be followed, government can follow critical incident protocols and policies. This means  a government agency or department may adopt streamlined and flexible procurement processes to facilitate an immediate response to an emergency, crisis or disaster – such as in response to COVID-19. This can mean anything from direct purchasing through to conducting limited tendering in order to meet the demand and need.

For procurements not related to an immediate response to an emergency, the normal purchasing rules will continue to apply. For example, I can imagine many procurements for health equipment and supplies must be made using critical incident protocols, while ongoing procurements for a school upgrade (for example) would continue to follow normal procurement policies.

Financial delegations

The Victorian Government has deferred its budget to October this year, in line with Federal Government budget deferment. This, coupled with unprecedented and un-forecasted expenditure in response to COVID-19, means that government expenditure on other goods, services and works, will be uncertain. To manage government expenditure, we are expecting that usual financial delegations will be referred up to very senior government executives, along with quite clear rules on what is unnecessary expenditure.

Access to government executives

Ministers, public senior executives and executives are going to be inundated with calls and correspondence from concerned citizens, as well as businesses with a number of very well-meaning offers of assistance; with many of these on a pro-bono basis. The recent bushfires will still be in the back of their minds, so it’s been a double whammy hit for government in a very short space of time.

Be mindful of this if you’re engaging government during this crisis. If you have relationships with departmental staff, they might be a good first point of contact before you reach out to a Minister. Public officers will often have a good understanding of the lay of the land and the current sentiment of government, and whether it is an appropriate time to reach out to them (and how).

But please remember, a Minister cannot buy anything. Politicians are approached on policy, while public servants are approached on programs.

Departments, department heads and their 2ICs are also going to be grappling with the new environment they are working in, with new policies and rules to be applied under the declaration of the state of emergency, and probably changing on a weekly basis!

They may also be facing operational and program budget restrictions, and potentially staff reductions as government diverts its resources towards addressing the crisis. Staff will be trying to prioritise activities and will be trying to do this when there is a lot of noise, their executives’ attentions are diverted, and in this dynamic landscape, everything is continually shifting. (Just think back on how much has changed in the last 14 days.)

No-go departments

If engaging government during this crisis, be aware there are some departments with a huge role to play in addressing COVID-19 and its impacts, including budget. These include the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education and the State Revenue Office. The Treasury and Finance Departments will also be wearing the brunt of government’s response to this pandemic.

Unless you have existing strong relationships or very targeted services to meet immediate departmental need, I would carefully consider your approach to them, and perhaps look at engagements at a director level, rather than above.

What can you do? Listen. Be creative. And be a little patient.

Government needs you. It just might not know it yet. Therefore, understanding what government needs, particularly at a time like this, is the first step towards sensitively engaging government during this crisis. But remember, governments, just like you, are grappling with the new reality of operating in these uncertain times, so be patient.

Offer to host tele/videoconferences

In our new world of social distancing, technology is now our biggest asset. While government has finally adopted the world of tele- and video- conferencing, be mindful that it may still not be as widely accessible as you think. If you have been lucky enough to secure a meeting with departmental staff, offer to host the tele- and/or videoconferencing if you have the means to. If nothing else, you’ve just reduced their to-do list by one.

At the forefront of government’s mind will be how it can continue to ‘keep the lights on’. This is an essential role of government, and it will be feeling the weight of responsibility to continue with its approved budgeted program and procurements that will continue to feed industry.

Government is a massive player in the procurement marketplace and recognises this. And, considering all the job losses being felt across the country, governments will be trying to create as many opportunities as it can in these strained times.

Status of tenders and bids

From what we can see at Mia, tenders (and we assume requests for quotes) are continuing to be released weekly. Across the country:

If you are working on an established government program, have the conversation with the program manager to understand the impact on timelines. And, if you are responding to a tender or quotation, confirm the submission and project timing. We are seeing several government agencies extend the submission due date for market approaches in recognition of the impact of COVID-19 on the industry workforce.

Creative solutions for engaging government during this crisis

Another aspect is to be creative in the way that you would deliver services to government. Mia’s workshops could for instance be moved online so that government can continue to provide services to small businesses. Technology-based solutions to support working remotely will also be favourably looked upon.

Now is the time to think about what you can do to help. Some businesses have already begun diversifying from their usual product lines: breweries have collaborated to produce hand sanitiser, and one Melbourne clothing company is in discussions with government to redirect its manufacturing efforts to the production of medical clothing and essential items.

There is a lot of understandable uncertainty around what will happen after this is over, and there is every possibility that the business and industry landscape as we know it now, will fundamentally change. It is important that businesses find ways they can pivot to meet these challenges, and also that we learn to collaborate with each other to help drive the economy forward.

So we encourage you to continue engaging with government during this crisis, but please be mindful of its complex and ever-changing environment. If you have existing relationships, continue to build those in a meaningful way. However, unless you have a product or service that meets government’s immediate needs, now may not be the most appropriate time to be seeking new relationships and new sales.

In our next post, we’ll talk more about what to do when you have that grand idea that is going to solve everything, and how relationships are going to be key to moving forward.


Also see our post – How to create a Government Engagement Strategy

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