Make your case: good ideas aren’t enough, says Christine Nixon


Plenty of public servants forget that even if your idea is brilliant, you still have to be able to sell it to the minister, says Victoria’s former police chief.

To usher bright new policy ideas from the page to the field requires the ability to influence others.

“Sometimes people who are good policy analysts aren’t as good at making the case for their great ideas,” argues Victoria’s former top cop Christine Nixon.

“But you need to be able to do both.”

The development of persuasive skills is often overlooked in the public sector, she says.

“I have talked to a lot of senior public servants across different states and people often felt like they weren’t able to get their message across.

“Great ideas, but they don’t know how to sell them. Often people would say to me, ‘it’s such a great idea, it’s just obvious — but my manager or the minister doesn’t get it.’

Nixon, who was the first female chief commissioner of police in Australia, spoke to The Mandarin ahead of the workshop on influencing she’ll be conducting at this year’s Public Sector Week in Melbourne.

One of the key ways to win people over is to think about their interests and personality, and come up with a strategy for appealing to them as an individual or as a representative.

“I don’t think they do enough thinking about the person they’re trying to persuade,” she explained.

“Thinking about how to get that person, or that community, to hear you. I didn’t know about this until afterwards, but consultants I used to meet with would do a plan of attack before they met me. They have a plan for if x happens or y happens.

“Some people you don’t want to force to make a decision straight away — it might be better to say ‘we can do it next week’. Think about the history of that group, of that person. Get a bigger picture on what’s going on.”

And know when to strike. “I’ve had a number of times where it’s just been the right timing, you get something up you never expected,” she adds.

“It’s got to fit into an agenda, whether that’s a government’s or a department’s agenda.”

If people like you, or if you’re able to help someone out with a problem they’re facing, you’ll generally find it easier to get your point across — as will being able to show that someone else is already doing it. “If we don’t do this then we’ll miss out,” is another good convincer, as are appeals to authority — backing from Harvard or a well respected agency is hard to argue with.

“The research actually says we tend to underestimate how much we are swayed by authority,” says Nixon.

Public Sector Week, organised by IPAA Victoria, will run August 14-18. Christine Nixon’s influencing workshop will take place on Friday August 18.