Len Domino says he had learned a lot in the 29 years since he opened Leonard Domino & Associates to provide what he thought of then as “a different kind of government relations service”, but he also says he’s convinced that the basic idea he started with is even truer today.
“When I went into the government relations business, I believed – based on my own years of experience in politics and government – that most people inside government sincerely want to make things better, and they’re constantly looking for partners who will help them make that happen.
“We’re able to help our clients succeed because when we approach government, we’re trying to build partnerships, too.
“That’s what government relations should be all about. It’s not about asking for favors or special treatment. It’s not about pressure; it’s not about political threats or inducements.
“Successful government relations today is all about partnerships and coalition-building.”
Domino says the advice he gives his clients reflects the fact that he has been on both sides of the government relations table. In his late teens, Len had two hobbies – playing football and managing political campaigns. The football accounts for the bad knees that still slow him down on some days; the political experience helped him to build an understanding of and respect for the people who run for office to help improve their communities.
Before starting Leonard Domino & Associates, Len was one of the youngest people ever elected to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly (in 1977). He served as a senior policy and political aide to Senior Ministers in Ontario during the early 1980s. And he was retained by governments in Saskatchewan and Ottawa to manage consultative processes aiming to tap community opinion about health services and government programs to support the family farm.
“That was like government relations in reverse,” he says. “The people inside government were concerned they weren’t hearing clearly from health service users and farm families. So the governments reached out: it was another search for partners to make things better.”
“It may take longer to build a partnership than it does to plan a press conference attacking the government. But usually, the partnership works a lot better – for everyone involved.”
That’s the message Leonard Domino and Associates take to clients, and that consistent approach has helped earn the trust of people in government.
“The people inside government know our clients aren’t going to be trying to ‘pull strings’ or score cheap debating points. They know we’re genuinely interested in building partnerships and long term relationships. So we usually get a hearing – and that’s an opportunity to learn more about what the people inside government are trying to achieve as well as informing the government about our clients’ goals and concerns.”
“There are skills to government relations – and we try to teach our clients those skills.”
Obviously, Leonard Domino believes that government relations firms can provide real value to organizations: that’s the business Leonard Domino & Associates is in. But Domino believes one of the most valuable services his firm provides involves helping clients build their own understanding of how to deal effectively with governments.
“The more my clients understand about the needs and priorities and motivations of the people inside government, the easier it is for us to help them develop realistic long-term strategies for government relations.” That’s what led Domino to develop the series of seminars and workshops on government relations he holds regularly in Ontario and across Canada.
“Sometimes coming to our seminar convinces an organization to retain our services going forward. Sometimes, it just helps the people inside the organization to develop their own approaches to government relations. Either way – we think these learning experiences provide real client value”.
“No question about it: sometimes you have to take the gloves off. That’s fair enough as long as you’re realistic about the risks and costs of getting into open fights with governments.”
Domino has no hesitation in admitting that – sometimes – organizations have no choice but to go public to try to pressure government into paying realistic attention to issues. But he stresses two things: the first is that this kind of open fight with government should be a last resort; the second is that – when it’s necessary to get into a public conflict with government over an issue – it’s critical to keep the conflict about the issue and not descend into personal attacks or start acting like an opposition political party.
“You can always get into a fight with the government – so don’t rush. Take the time to learn about the government’s motivation and look for opportunities to have a partnership instead of a public conflict.”
“And when you believe you have no choice but to fight with the government, try to keep the argument about the issues and about the public interest.”
“If you attack people personally, you’ll get headlines for a day or two. But the government people you’ve maligned will remember your insults for a much a longer time. And the media who give you those headlines will very quickly mark you down as hotheads: being rude will get you a few headlines; it won’t earn you any long term respect – from the press or the public.”
Len is proud of the fact that – when his clients “go public” to pressure the government, they behave “politely and professionally”. When the Grain and Oilseed Producers of Ontario held a major demonstration at Queen’s Park, we made sure the government people know when we’d coming and what message we’d be carrying. There was no effort to ambush or embarrass the government. And our members even did a thorough clean-up of the area when our demonstration was over. Oh – and the demonstration worked and we ended up with a pretty good partnership with the government.”
What is Len Domino proudest about after 20 years in the government relations business?
“I’m proud of the fact that our clients – working as partners with governments – have helped governments do a better job of serving the public interest.”
Domino admits that some people will suggest his approach is naïve. But he says there’s one very important group who will agree with this message 100%: the people inside government – on both the political and the bureaucratic sides of government.
“I’ve been on the government side and I’ve been in politics. There’s a lot of competition. Partisan politics can be a rough sport.
“But at the end of the day, the people in politics and government are committed to making things better. That’s the same thing our clients are committed to. And after 20 years in the business that still sounds to me like the basis for partnership.”