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Observer board

How can I build government support?

Category: ActivitiesName: Penny Wilson, Project Officer
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“It was very important to have the project endorsed by government and have these people around the table…not only did it create a link to the formal MSFD process but their presence added legitimacy to the project and helped bring others on board.”


At the beginning of the project we set up an ‘Observer Board’ with high level government representatives from each of the Celtic Seas countries.  The purpose of the Observer Board was to provide expert advice on marine policy to help steer project activities. Having government representatives directly and continuously involved in the project ensured the outcomes were relevant, useful and connected to emerging policy needs.

Observer Board Functions:

  1. Provide guidance to ensure relevance of the project to implementation of marine policy in particular the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and ensure synergies of the project activities with national statutory processes
  2. Advise on scale and timing of project activities to avoid duplication with governments’ stakeholder engagement work
  3. Advise on most suitable timing, location and format of conferences, workshops etc  to maximise policy maker attendance
  4. Encourage participation of other policy-makers and stakeholders in the Celtic Seas conferences and workshops
  5. Facilitate exchange across the region
  6. Dissemination of the main project results and lessons learned through formal channels.

Step by Step

  1. If having government support for your project is a priority engagement objective consider whether, given your available resources, setting up an official Observer Board would be helpful.
  2. Using the results from your stakeholder analysis identify WHO would be the most appropriate people to invite.  Do they have high status, decision-making power or influence?
  3.  Be able to clearly articulate why it would be useful for them to be part of your Observer Board and invite representatives to the group. The biggest draw of the observer board meetings was the opportunity for each country to hear what the others were doing, so we made sure in the agenda that plenty of time was allocated for this, followed by discussion time.
  4. Make the initial meeting face to face, to encourage a sense of belonging and allow the different members to network informally with each other.
  5. We scheduled meetings at key stages in the project (roughly once a quarter).  The date was arranged by doodle poll. The agenda and any documents that required reviewing were sent out well in advance so the meetings were focused on discussion and decisions rather than updates.  Meetings were a mix of teleconference calls and face to face meetings depending on members’ availability.
  6.  Towards the end of the project we held a dinner for the Observer Board members to say thank you for their input and contribution to the project.

Top Tips

Usually the government department involved can help identify the most appropriate person to sit on your board.  It is also useful to identify a ‘second’ who can attend meetings if the member is not available.  Having two contacts means that if your board member leaves the organization or changes roles there is still someone who can brief whoever takes that role.

At the beginning of the project we asked the observer board members to sign up to a statement of support for the project :

“As the government departments responsible for marine policy in the Celtic Seas, we support the Celtic Seas Partnership project’s aim to create a strong and effective transboundary stakeholder partnership across the Celtic Seas. We believe that the partnership could help identify options that could support implementation of marine policy by facilitating constructive engagement with a broad range of sectors across the Celtic Seas. In particular, the Celtic Seas Partnership could :

  • Identify trans-sectoral and transboundary management challenges and provide solutions to help everyone work towards a more coordinated approach to marine management, including measures relevant to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD)
  • Develop guidelines, principles and related management measures, that draw on an ecosystem approach, which could contribute to the development of marine policy and the implementation of measures to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) in the Celtic Seas
  • We are keen to support the successful delivery of the Celtic Seas Partnership project as it will result in a transboundary partnership of stakeholders that will provide a contribution to our implementation of marine policy in the Celtic Seas.”

This formalised the commitment of the Observer board to the project, it also helped give the project legitimacy to wider stakeholders as we made this statement and the signatories viewable on our project website.

At some stages in the project it became difficult to secure attendance for the meeting due to the members’ very busy schedules. In order to overcome this issue, we put increasing effort into ensuring that the agenda sounded useful and interesting to the members, even going so far as asking the communication manager to look through and ‘jazz’ up the agenda for the meetings before it was sent out. We also spent more time individually contacting each Observer Board member, prior to each meeting, to talk to them about the agenda and confirm their attendance.

The Observer Board members seemed to really appreciate the opportunity to talk to the other members of the observer board, and hear their respective updates.  This seemed to be a big draw to attend the meetings, and so we made sure we allowed plenty of time within the meetings for the members to update on their own work areas, rather than filling all the time talking about the project.

The Observer Board members seemed to especially appreciate the face to face meetings. However, it wasn’t a realistic option for us to carry out every Observer Board meeting face to face – due to the time commitment this would require. The face to face Observer Board meetings were also significantly more expensive to hold.

In the Observer Board meetings we discussed the activities that the project was planning and how we were thinking of doing them.  This helped ensure we weren’t duplicating or cutting across what the governments were already doing and could ‘tweak’ them to make sure they were useful for the governments.

“You get better engagement if people can see that what they’re engaging in is really able to influence, so by having those strong links with government it makes sure that what’s coming out of the project is useful and feeding into government processes.”

A Celtic Seas Partnership officer acted as the secretariat for the group, coordinating the meetings, writing and distributing the minutes.  Having a consistent person as a contact point helped to build relationships.



The role of secretariat can take about a day a month in staff time.  The secretariat can often become the focal point for communication to the Observer Board members and nurturing those relationships can increase the time required.   We normally allowed 1-1.5 hours for the Observer Board meetings themselves, and then time to write up and send out minutes of the meeting.


Members were sought from relevant government departments in each of the UK Administrations, France, Ireland and the Isle of Man, in addition to relevant departments of the European Commission, and the OSPAR Commission Secretariat. It was considered whether representatives from Government advisory agencies would be invited to attend, however it was felt that it this would significantly increase the size of the group and it was better to keep the group to a smaller size.


Most of the meetings were held via teleconference which had a small fee. The face to face meetings required a meeting room and refreshments.  We also covered people’s travel expenses.