Public Affairs in the light – the power of ideas

Guest Writer By James Clark Director

A flick through the media these days would lead the casual reader to presume that there was something rotten at the heart of the lobbying industry.

In fact the ability to influence the public sector and wider legislation is both legitimate and, actually, healthy. It’s a question of how you go about it.

The latest group of luminaries to be “caught out” by a newspaper sting include some of the nation’s most senior retired military figures. They can be added to the list of those who have been stung before, from politicians to retiring senior civil servants, and many more besides.

According to The Sunday Times, the former top brass were tricked into offering to use their influence and connections in support of a (wholly fictitious) South Korean unmanned drone manufacturer. All deny wrongdoing, but the story raises the issue of lobbying in the public mind once more, with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond suggesting that it goes to the heart of the Ministry of Defence’s relationships with recently retired senior officers.

I should declare an interest or two here myself, in that I used to work for The Sunday Times, and that I know some of the men involved from my years at MOD (and have always found them to be of the highest propriety, for what it’s worth).

The problem with this is that for anyone who actually understands the point where government, politics and industry interacts, this isn’t lobbying; it’s the public image of lobbying. It’s why many of us are so surprised to see otherwise intelligent and experienced figures tricked in such a way, and puzzled that journalists still think this is how things work.

Firstly, in a democracy there is nothing at all wrong with lobbying legislators to act in a way you think is right. They are there to be persuaded, be that by constituents, unions, charities, think tanks or, perish the thought, even businesses. The statute books are packed with legislation which is better for having been drafted in consultation with those who understand its impact best (and, indeed, the same books are not free of legislation which doesn’t work because it wasn’t).

The fact is that good political decisions are taken by ministers who listen, then weigh up the advice they’re given and make their decisions. This is as true of internal advice from the civil service as it is for external advice. Having been involved in numerous Bills passing through Parliament as a senior civil servant, I can tell

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you it’s naive to think that the civil service doesn’t hold strong views and lobby relentlessly to see them acted upon.

Lobbying, then, should not be a dirty word. It’s one of the reasons that good public affairs companies are desperate to operate in the light, not the shadows.

What’s the reality, then?

Well, here’s the bit these exposés in the Press miss. The days when lobbying was about who you knew, or who you had access to, are long gone. The smoky backrooms are empty these days (and, of course, smoke-free). In fact that’s been true for years.

Today the ability to influence political decision-making is about ideas, not access. It is overt, not covert, and about whether individuals, groups and companies can demonstrate plausible and effective options to Government (and others), evidence the effects of proposed new laws and rules and demonstrate how various stakeholders will be impacted by them.

Yes, their interest may be commercial, but that doesn’t mean their ideas must be bad. Ministers of all political hues have understood this for years.

If your argument is strong, and well-thought-through, politicians will listen – they’d be foolish not to – and if your idea ends up forming part of the politician’s thinking in the long run, both you and they should be happy to say so publicly.

Increasingly, also, politics in the UK is a centre ground fight in which old ideologies are blurred. What that means is that politicians are more interested in what works than from which doctrinal political direction it comes.

For example, some years ago I introduced a company which had major contracts with the US Department of Defense (DoD) to a British defence minister. I knew the man, but he didn’t meet the client because of that, he met them because they had something very interesting to say. They explained to him some of the work they did to support the DoD’s attempts to provide long-term support to veterans.

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They explained the system they’d built and deployed, how well it worked, what the effects had been, where the evidence for this was and how they thought it could help the government here deliver on its own drive to improve the lives of veterans.

“We’ve done this”, they said, “and we’ve seen where the pitfalls are and learned how to address them”.

This was a meeting with the minister, with his civil servants present, in his diary, in his office. No murky meeting in a hotel. He was happy to meet them formally because what they had to say was of great interest to him in terms of what he was trying to achieve.

This is the face of effective “lobbying”. It’s about understanding what government is trying to achieve, identifying solutions to help it, and then explaining them openly and honestly.

What a good public affairs firm does is help businesses identify those points of communal interest with government, local or national, and formulate a genuine and effective narrative around them that will stand up to scrutiny.

We live in the age of the influence of ideas, not the idea of influence.

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