The PRCA has announced the shortlist for the fifth Douglas Smith Prize for best young public affairs practitioner in the UK. PubAffairs will be publishing the essays of all six shortlisted candidates in the run up to the 2017 Public Affairs Awards on Thursday 14th December at which the winner of the Prize will be announced.
The first round of the Prize asked candidates to submit an essay entitled “What impact does a minority Conservative Government have on the public affairs industry?”. The candidates have been interviewed on their essay and their wider work on the 28th November. Below is the entry submitted by Rhiannon Sanders, Associate Political Consultant at The Whitehouse Consultancy.
What impact does a minority Conservative Government have on the public affairs industry?
Even the most experienced political analysts did not predict a minority Conservative Government during 2017. For public affairs professionals immersed in their sector, the consequences of the slightest shift in government policy or personnel can feel momentous – but ultimately, following this shock result, the role of the public affairs industry has become more crucial to ensuring that government continues as normal, and businesses, charities and others can influence policy debates where they might otherwise be at a standstill. There is an opportunity to demonstrate the industry’s value, both to clients and to parliamentarians, and to reaffirm our place in the democratic process after it has experienced numerous shocks to the system.
The most obvious implication of a government focused on passing crucial votes – given that losses will be construed as further signs of its weakness – is that the industry’s everyday work may be disrupted. If MPs are summoned from an event to walk through the division lobbies, it may mean the absence of a keynote speaker for an event months in the making. If a reading of a Bill is rescheduled to allow for other legislation, and then dropped from the parliamentary timetable, an important amendment and the work to secure it could disappear into thin air. But this disruption means that the public affairs industry needs to utilise more innovative ways of achieving outcomes: working with Select Committees, shadow teams and think tanks is now as important as targeting a Bill Committee or a junior minister.
The weakening of the Government is also accompanied by a return to normality for the Opposition, following a year when it was thought that Labour would not come within touching distance of Downing Street for a decade. Cultivating relationships with opposition MPs does not receive the implicit dismissal that many lobbyists gave it a year ago – demonstrated in the revived attendance at this year’s Labour Party conference, compared with a diminished attendance and deflated proceedings in Manchester.
However, the possibility that desired policy changes will not be addressed despite discussion with government, shadow ministers or backbenchers is concerning, and could prompt the question of why these discussions should be pursued at all. The Government may well procrastinate announcements on big policy issues to avoid proposing anything which could be electorally toxic. Gavin Barwell has certainly learnt the lessons of his predecessors in Number 10 and their “dementia tax” – which arguably cost the Conservatives the election – and has pushed the publication of a social care green paper even further into the future. This caution could present an impasse for public affairs – if consultations, policy papers and draft legislation aren’t even published, how can we push for change?
The answer is to continue to have these important conversations with parties in both Houses, regardless of whether they are likely to come to fruition soon, as achieving endorsement for a policy may be the most meaningful result possible for the time being. This will likely involve a conversation with clients explaining the long-term strategic value of investing in these relationships now, albeit with some realism around how long it may be before government is pursuing a full, non-Brexit focused legislative agenda. Any public affairs professional with an enthusiasm for policy should relish this chance to buckle down and sink their teeth into the issues that the Government is currently leaving undecided – and conveying this passion to clients should convince them further of our value to their own longstanding strategic objectives.
A pertinent example of this is the legislative conundrum currently facing the NHS: the implementation of Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs), and eventually Accountable Care Systems, fundamentally challenges the Health and Social Care Act and was expected to be tackled if the Conservatives had won a majority. The election of a minority government put the brakes on new legislation to unpick the 2012 Act, as STPs have the potential to be highly controversial at a local level and would be almost impossible to make into statutory bodies without a significant parliamentary majority.
The Department of Health, STP leads and NHS England officials will therefore be keen to hear policy ideas that can achieve the ambitions of STPs without challenging existing legislation, and be more likely to push for them within the current NHS funding cycle. For some interested parties, it is not the vehicle for change that matters as much as the change happening at all – and once a majority government is elected, those who have been presenting valid ideas in the meantime will be more closely involved with the policies pursued thereafter.
For the public affairs industry, now is the time to ensure that our messaging is clear, concise and compelling, to increase the chances of influencing change both now and when government business does proceed. Our knowledge of the inner mechanisms of Westminster is also essential in distorting fact from fiction during a period when any whisper of discontent from the Conservative backbenches will produce speculative headlines about a leadership contest. Being able to guide clients and their engagement strategies through a period of confusion will highlight the industry’s expertise, and stand us in good stead during a time when challenges to the status quo are possible in any walk of life.
It is in processing the small details, and deciphering them to those who do not live and breathe politics, that we demonstrate our true value within a democracy. Enabling trade organisations, charities or businesses to understand what the Government is doing and how it affects them is crucial to ensuring that those people most impacted by government business can influence it. Doing this while the headlines present a picture of chaos is even more important – someone should be strong and stable. And ultimately, working through such unpredictable and extraordinary times presents us with an intellectually challenging yet enjoyable experience, which will undoubtedly renew our passions for the sector and remind us why we entered it in the first place.