269: Learning the lessons of COVID-19 has already started: here is what you need to know
As we start to come out of political lockdown, parliament and politicians will want to pick over how the crisis was handled and what lessons we need to learn. But in reality the process has already started and organisations need to know what it means for them.
The formal process – a public inquiry or maybe a series of public inquiries – has yet to be agreed or even really discussed in public. Until we really start to move beyond the crisis, then this will not change significantly. However, a number of Select Committees have already launched inquiries.
This presents organisations with a number of challenges and dilemmas and in order to manage their reputations effectively they would be better off considering these now.
Whatever the forum for the scrutiny when it comes, some organisations will have no choice but to engage – across frontline healthcare, social care, education etc. But also potentially caught in the net could be organisations dealing with the importing of PPE, those who engaged with procurement processes and, much more broadly, those who wish to give their views on the business support or furloughing schemes.
For all those involved, what are some of the considerations they need to balance?
- How challenging do you want to be? – In very simple terms this means how much do you want to attack the government, and previous governments, and their approach? There are not only ongoing relationships to consider but possible future business opportunities too, or the lack of them. Similarly, there are likely to be complex procedural issues at play. For instance, when it comes to any public inquiry, do you simply want to maintain a watch on proceedings or will you seek to play a more formal role – assuming you have choice in the matter?
- Setting the tone – The work that is already taking place in the Select Committees will start to set the political and media narrative about COVID-19, its impact, our preparedness for it as a nation and the associated support schemes. So do organisations look to engage in a forceful way now or wait for the main inquiry / inquiries later?
- Timescales – As a firm, we have dealt with many public inquiries including some of the most high-profile examples of recent years. No two are exactly the same but this inquiry, or inquiries, will have some big challenges facing it. Not least, its scope and, therefore, timescale. For those involved, it means allocating sufficient resources and appreciating that they will be in the political and media spotlight for some period of time;
- The return of party politics – Frankly, the extent to which party politics has been ‘suspended’ during the crisis can be questioned. Very few decisions, if any, are taken without due regard to politics and the electoral implications, despite the constant refrain of being ‘led by the science’. But as the Select Committees really get going and the inquiry starts to take shape then the party politics, on all sides, will come back with a vengeance. So all those involved need to be aware of the heightened tensions this will bring and, with it, the likelihood of a fightback / counter briefings; and
- Balancing the law – alongside the parliamentary activity and an inquiry / inquiries will, more than likely, be a whole series of legal challenges and litigation. In other words, there will be many different, maybe even competing, streams of communications work that all need to be brought together. Co-ordination of action and activity will be needed alongside the communications work. Without this there is a danger of conflicting messages, poor integration and, with that, reputational damage.
So even though we are not out of the woods yet as regards the core health crisis, now is the time to start thinking about your response to it. Parliament has already started to probe the lessons to be learned; but in order to fix your position in that debate, you need to ask yourselves the right questions first.