Some days, it’s nice to think back nostalgically to the time when the biggest difference between the major political parties in the UK was whether free school meals should be means tested or not.
Unfortunately — or fortunately if you harbour a deep love of politics or work directly in public affairs — those days are long gone.
The politics we witness unfolding today has been accelerating for years. You can almost divide the level of political divisiveness into eras — the Iraq War era, the same-sex marriage era, the austerity era, the Brexit era.
Now, of course, we’re immersed in the Covid-19 era.
Having seen off the threat of an interventionist Labour government in waiting last December, organisations of every stripe have watched with interest — perhaps in awe — as government intervention has risen to levels not seen outside of wartime.
Back in the days when there was broad agreement among parties on strategic issues such as taxation, defence and membership of international institutions, public affairs was moving away from a sharp focus on lobbying and into a broader suite of practices — the era of top down and bottom up public affairs was born.
PA professionals were as likely to be advising clients on creative strategies to foment a movement on social media as they were to be lunching SpAds. Arguably, this has been the best period for public affairs professionals, affording them a broader range of potential career paths, with the chance to flex creative muscles as well as contact books.
But perhaps we’re witnessing a retrenchment. Whereas in previous eras, many organisations would have been forgiven for thinking their mandate to influence policy-making or legislation was limited to joining a trade association and reading the papers, the risks of unforeseen policy changes have taken on a far more existential hue.
As Covid-19 has precipitated a huge increase in government intervention, the question on the minds of many business and other organisational leaders is turning to how to gain some purchase in our attempts to influence the slew of strategically potent policy coming down the line.
Public affairs professionals don’t need to be told how much harder it now is to stay on top of the torrent of information flowing out of the Westminster and devolved administrations. In fact, the real problem is the lack of obvious control over the flow even by the governments themselves, leading to the endless succession of leaks, u-turns and negative headlines.
We can all think back to the calmer days, to those earlier eras of apparent consensus. But those days are, for now at least, a memory, and public affairs professionals need new and better tools if they are to stay on top of the fast-moving policy agenda.
For anyone advising an organisation that is regulated, funded or in some other form of direct engagement with the government — which may now describe most of the economy — being the first to know who’s said what and when on the issues that matter has become more essential than ever.
To be in the know and to know what to do about it. This is the new measure of value in public affairs.