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10 August 2020

276: What has COVID-19 done for public affairs?

COVID-19 has meant a change in the relationship between government and large parts of the economy. Many organisations who barely looked twice at their political engagement suddenly became aware of its importance. The challenge is to keep that engagement going.

It could be argued that COVID-19 has done more to raise the profile of public affairs than the sector itself has done. As business, charities and others realised that support was required and was being offered, engagement with ministers and officials suddenly became critical. It is often such times of crisis that what an organisation needs becomes clear. In this case it was good political understanding, strong reputations with political audiences and an understanding of the process. All aspects of good public affairs advice.

Government itself too wanted this outside help in designing the support mechanisms. Without that real world experience, they realised that whatever support was offered was less likely to be effective. Then there were those that were that ‘missed out’ early on, such as the charity sector. They needed to work hard to secure the help and support needed.

COVID-19 has been, I believe, fundamentally different from the previous period which was dominated by Brexit. The Brexit period generally involved those who were already engaged in politics and policy-making, particularly the more heavily regulated sectors. There was also an overriding political outcome that had already been decided and any pushback on it was to risk political relationships.

COVID-19 drew a much wider audience into the government’s ambit. Trade and membership bodies became more attractive to those they represented because they could see a real and immediate worth in having lines into government. This time has also, so far, been less party political which cannot be said of Brexit.

But where does that leave us all now?

  • Keep the relationships going – organisations need to maintain their political links and keep the conversations going. Whilst everyone hopes there is no second wave or future emergency, it is always a possibility. The relationships could be needed again during the hoped for economic recovery especially if there are any hiccups.
  • Don’t lose the opportunity to talk about wider issues and potential follow-up as well – organisations should believe that this is just the start of the conversation. Now that audiences have an understanding of the issues, there is the opportunity to move onto other matters.
  • Public inquiry – one potentially tricky issue to consider is the inquiry that the PM recently admitted is coming. This could be a really challenging process for all involved so it is best to consider likely positions and approaches now rather than waiting until nearer the time.
  • Trade and membership bodies – these organisations can continue to demonstrate their absolute value going forward but it means keeping members involved and also communicating with them regularly. This is also and especially the case for local bodies as well. The emphasis is not just on London or national bodies (as we keep ‘levelling-up’ in mind as well).
  • Do not make assumptions – just because political audiences wanted to speak during COVID-19, it should not be assumed that they will want to in future. Instead, a level of pro-actively in public affairs will continue to be needed. Looking for the opportunities to engage and keeps the channels of communication open.

This should not be a distasteful conversation about opportunities for growth when so people have suffered and died as a result of the virus. Instead it is a plea for organisations and government to continue to work together to secure better public policy outcomes. One can only hope that public affairs can continue to play a role in making that happen.

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