What Does Business Think About The Way Government Engages?

In March and April 2021, the Whitehall and Industry Group (WIG) asked more than 50 large private sector organisations about public-private sector collaboration, Net Zero and Covid-19. The responses showed that whilst there is much to welcome, much more remains to be achieved.

The respondents to the survey worked within the government affairs function for their organisations, so were well used to dealing with central government and the challenges involved.

They were asked about how they found engagement with their ‘parent’ department, the one they have most contact with. This varied depending on the nature of the organisation involved but included BEIS, DCMS, Defra and HM Treasury. The survey found high satisfaction ratings for engagement with these ‘parent’ departments. There were, though, plenty of ideas for better engagement included.

91% of respondents said they were looking to engage in COP26 and 94% knew that they had a responsibility to reduce carbon emissions (94%), although where responsibility lay for this was quite diffuse across the organisations. 63% believed it ‘very important’ that he Government has a responsibility for promoting a clean, green economy.

Among the respondents, it was felt that Covid-19 had a clear negative impact on their organisations. But 66% of respondents of respondents thought the UK economy would be either ‘slightly’ or ‘much’ stronger in 12 months’ time.

There are undoubtedly differences between the experiences of large organisations such as those surveyed and smaller ones. Large companies and trade bodies are often employed by Government as a way of ‘speaking to the sector’ and that isn’t always completely accurate. Some are, for instance, better at engaging with smaller businesses across their supply chain. Some take climate change more seriously than others.

A ‘parent’ department scoring well does not mean that other departments are achieving the same results. It also doesn’t mean that the public affairs (/government affairs) teams in those organisations can rest on their laurels, far from it. You need to continue to earn the right to be heard and think ahead to what government will want to be talking about – most obviously this year with COP 26 coming, the environment and climate change – and what you want them to talk about.

Government departments need to have a clear understanding of what good engagement means to us. We need to ensure that it isn’t just about large roundtable meetings or having a regular meeting in the diary. That means that we all need to think about innovation across engagement but should never lose sight of the basics of ‘follow-up’ and ‘actions’ applying to all of us, all the time.

The engagement, such as a meeting, might be the end of the process as far say a Minister may see it. For public affairs, that is just the start.

We spend a large amount of time trying to help set the agenda, rather than just responding to what Ministers think are the key issues. So it was interesting to see little support among the respondents for reforming our planning system which turned out to be at the heart of the Queen’s Speech.

WIG’s really useful survey, which will be made available on their website, starts to help us understand more about engagement and can doubtless be used by both departments and public affairs professionals to help make further improvements.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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