Return to site

Standing Start

Why organisational leadership needs to find the real debate behind the façade

· Sam Perkins,Policy response,Media,Analysis

For organisations keeping an eye out for policy change, watching for signs in the media means you’re already too late. It’s crucial to be ready to respond to emerging policy issues. However, policy debates that roll on in media outlets are often months behind the debate that counts; among decision makers and their advisors (political and departmental). It’s only by maintaining meaningful contact with insiders that you can see what’s coming from further down the road.

This is not to say it’s all about who you know; ‘handshake politics’ will get you as far as the meeting table but if you get there without a genuine understanding about the risks and opportunities you face, you will do little but burn credibility. A helpful framework is the “policy cycle”, a standard version of the process by which problem solving works in the public sector.

broken image

While a useful start, this model is flawed for a number of reasons, not least of which is that government is made up of people just as prone to irrationality as in every other organisation. To explore where media attention fits, let’s focus on the “issues identified” stage. If all relevant political actors notice an issue simultaneously and a debate kicks off, that’s well and good. However, the typical way this plays out in practice is that this stage occurs at different times for the media and for political insiders (whoever happens to be first for a particular issue). For corporates and non-government organisations outside of the circle, this poses significant risks when the difference isn’t recognised.

Organisations that are exposed to regulation (read; everyone) rightly take interest when changes are being made, but need to make two further assumptions;

  1. For issues sparked by the media, such as various kinds of scandals, the political side must be seen to act quickly so there is a narrow window
  2. For issues the media picks up, such as long-running weakness in provision of a public service, the political side has already been paying attention

Businesses and organisations are at risk of only paying attention to political issues once they’re in the media; this either means they have an extremely tight window or it’s already too late to contribute sector-specific knowledge or expertise. The downside risk is that new regulation or lack thereof doesn’t take into account realities on the ground or the particular circumstances of your operation. Formal consultation often brings up these kinds of issues later in the piece but by then, the momentum of an issue has been directed in a particular way and you’re at risk of being left on the riverbank, rushing to catch up. The upside risk (or missed opportunity) is that since your expertise was too late to make a real difference, you’re less likely to be seen as a leader and will have a harder time positioning as such into the future.

In either case, it’s hard to tell the status of a policy response from the outside; this is why long-lasting relationships are needed not just with politicians, but also departmental stakeholders. The public service fulfils an evolving role but it is still a deep source of knowledge and expertise. Knowing when and how your practical expertise is relevant for them helps to achieve an outcome that satisfies the practical considerations in developing effective policy, and thereby supports the public good.

Failing to engage with policy advisors and departmental stakeholders in a consistent way leaves your operation at a standing start when something that impacts your sector changes. This is often an ill-understood risk to a business’ or organisation’s need for a rational and dependable regulatory environment, and therefore a risk that boards must directly address as part of their risk management and governance role.

Sam Perkins is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory, writing on political risk and change management in regulatory affairs

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.