UK politics has changed and this requires a fresh approach to public affairs.
The new government is working hard to look different to its Conservative predecessors.
The Conservatives now depend on northern votes and have adopted traditionally left-wing policies that benefit their new northern seats, including increased infrastructure spending and public service investment.
Policies need to work here, and quickly.
The rising cost of living is a top three voter concern. Tackling it will trump promotion of the free market. Government will intervene in markets seen to be failing consumers. The private sector will be valued, but will be expected to do more than contribute to GVA.
Still in Campaign Mode
Even with a majority government politics has the raw feel of a campaign as the Prime Minister seeks to consolidate the fragile victory he achieved in many new seats.
Stump politics is here to stay. Ministers will call out when large executive pay packets or shareholder returns come at the cost of jobs.
Political and reputational risk for corporates and investors will be heightened.
No.10 is the campaign command centre and will exercise tight control over the rest of government.
The Prime Minister’s advisers will choose policies according to their popularity with the new coalition of voters that have delivered the Conservatives victory.
This is being tested through continuous polling and focus groups in new Conservative constituencies. Business interests must understand how proposals they take to government will be good for, or at least not harmful to, these new voter segments.
Policy decisions will be quick and announcements many. There will be many initiatives to keep track of and understand.
No. 10 Control
Arms-length decision making is over. The new government believes unelected decision-makers have taken too much power away from politicians, and will take the opportunity presented by Brexit to reverse this trend.
Ministers are putting politics back at the heart of all government decision-making, and anywhere public money is being spent. Politicians will become more involved in medicine pricing, competition decisions and energy, water and broadband regulation. Quango chiefs like Simon Stevens at NHS England and Andrew Tyrie at the Competition and Markets Authority will have less autonomy.
Post-Brexit economic success is paramount. There is a huge opportunity for inward investors. There will be an interest in pragmatic deregulation. Government will be looking to business for answers to the investment and productivity challenges as they develop a new business policy. But they will be looking for positive solutions from business, not problems.
Public affairs practice, whether in-house departments or in consulting, must evolve.
Good advisers will recognise the context has changed and that this government has a new modus operandi.
They will challenge their cognitive biases about how decisions in government are made. They will un-learn much of what they know about how the Coalition and New Labour governments worked or failed. They will shake off any lazy assumptions about how policy traditionally gets developed.
Good advisers will challenge their clients to think about this government as different to those before it. They will know that No.10 likes ambition from business. They will apply fresh thinking when developing policy proposals to take to ministers. They will help the businesses they work for to innovate in order to be more in tune with government’s thinking and therefore get a hearing from ministers.
New techniques for two-way dialogue with politicians are needed.
Networks will matter, probably more than ever, but face-time will be limited. Given the anticipated pace of change, many ministers won’t have time to study complex arguments.
Attention spans will be short.
Creative and arresting ways of expressing an argument, using design, thinking and data will achieve more cut through than traditional policy briefings.
What does good public affair looks like?
The best advisers will combine depth of insight with agility in providing advice.
Advisers have to take a deeper view of profound changes in technology, the economy, in society and geo-politically, rather than just monitor changes in Cabinet.
Trends must be understood, the data analysed.
At the same time, political decision-making will happen quickly, requiring rapid problem solving followed by well-structured advice.
The best public affairs consulting environments will embrace this change by building teams that welcome adaptive learning and divergent thinking.
They will recruit smart people who are client-centric but unafraid to challenge with their strategic opinions. They will be sceptical of hierarchy and of old ways of thinking. They will embrace new technology, the need for data-led insights and new ways of working.
Consultancies built along these lines will shape a fresh approach to public affairs that will deliver outsized results for clients.
by Dominic Church, Managing Director, WA