Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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13 Jan 2014

How to discuss Transition with … No.2: MPs and Civil Servants


As Transitioners, what’s the most skilful way to approach decision makers, both civil servants and national government?  I talked to Peter Lipman, Chair of Transition Network and Director of Projects and Innovation at Sustrans, who spends a fair amount of time in and out of meetings with government officials/civil servants at national and local level.  What tips might he have for Transitioners wanting to most skilfully engage?

The challenge

How to best interface with government officials, so as to make sure that any meetings are as productive as possible and enhance, rather than diminish, your credibility, and open more doors for future dialogue and interest? 

Key points

  • Be clear about not only what you want from your meeting, but also what the people you’re meeting might want
  • Make time to think about it and research in advance
  • Pitch your message to what you know they will be interested and what will help them to meet their objectives,while never forgetting your own objectives
  • Find the balance between being assertive and being friendly 


Peter Lipman is Chair of Transition Network and Director of Projects and Innovation with Sustrans.  His work often brings him into contact with government officials, MPs and civil servants. 

Photo: The Ecologist

The conversation  

Pete’s first suggestion was that the place to start is with a clear assessment of what it is that both parties want to get out of the dialogue.  If you are only concerned with what you want out of it, it could well end up a waste of both people’s times. He continued:

“There’s a thought process.  “Who’s my MP?  What are they coming from?  What do they want?  Who am I?  What do I want?”  It’s best to start by mapping out who it is that you’ll be talking to.  What are they trying to do?  What are his/her department’s objectives?  Be really clear as well as to what you want from the meeting, as you will need to hold onto that”.  

He added, “it is also important to think “am I the right person to be doing this, or might someone else be better?””  He stressed that in meetings it is important to really listen to the person you’re meeting, to be clear and succinct, as well as being assertive and friendly.  You might find yourself being pushed to try and fill a hole that they need filling, rather than to what you want out of the meeting.  “Be clear of your mandate”, Pete said.  “If you aren’t sure of an answer, it’s fine to say “I need to think about that.  I’ll get back to you on it”.  

There is also no point in taking an adversarial stance.  People will act massively defensively, in much the same as any of us would if confronted directly in such a setting.  As Pete puts it, what we need to seek is the “sweet spot” of tension between offering sufficient debate and discussion and exchange and holding firm to what we think is crucial and important. 

In such a setting, I wondered what is it that gives us respect and credibility?  “It will come partly from your behaviour, and partly from the credentials you bring with you, and those of your movement or group” Pete told me. Reassuringly, he added that “it gets easier with experience and a breadth of knowledge”. 

We’ll close with an example Pete offered that captures much of the advice offered above.  He was recently invited to attend a big European Union event about reconsidering EU energy policy representing Transition Network.  He was invited to attend for the full 2 days, but could only attend for a couple of hours to talk at a workshop:

“It was attended by 200 people, a third of them senior employees at the EU, a third national government and national institution employees, like the head of energy policy for France, and a third big corporations.  It was interesting to see that the people being consulted don’t include not civil society.  I did a presentation, a couple of other people did presentations, there was questions and answers, following which, one woman who seemed to be representing every big energy company in the world said “fascinating, be really interesting to talk”.  The next day I had an email from her, and rather than responding immediately, I did some homework, I set about following up web links, to be clear what shemight want.  It’s so important to understand that before launching into the discussion with her”.  

But, I asked him, when you speak at an event like this, presumably you nuance it differently than you would if you were speaking to a Transition group in a village hall somewhere?  

“Inevitably.  For that EU event I only went to try and jolt a top-down approach so that they would take the possibility of bottom up community action seriously.  So rather than read the endless reams of papers they had sent me in advance, I thought “what is it that would actually make them pay attention?”  So I thought there are two things.  One is the potential scale for community action, and I gave a couple of good examples like Brixton Energy and BWCE to really show the potential for scale.  I highlighted those kinds of examples, and linked that through to the breadth of the movement.  

The other thing is how vulnerable those markets they all assume are going to be there in their current form are to systemic change.  The market in Europe which has most shown that is the German market, where RWE, one of their big energy generators has lost, I can’t remember exactly, two-thirds to three-quarters of its market value over last three or four years, due to the effect of both renewables generally and more specifically community-owned renewables on the German energy market.  

Those are the 2 things to highlight, that combination of “you think you’re in control but actually look what’s happening under your nose in the biggest, most sophisticated most valuable energy market in Europe, Germany, and look at this potential”.  I just banged those 2 points home, and it got an enormous response. My guess is that I certainly wouldn’t have got someone who works with all those big companies immediately following up saying “we really need to talk” if I hadn’t pitched it at what I thought was where they’re interested.  What communities might want from them, if anything, is something I then need to refine before I then have that conversation with her.”