Category Archives: public affairs

Were you up for Portillo (on lobbying)?

Last week, on the BBC’s This Week programme, former MP and memorable victim of the electorate’s wrath, Michael Portillo, spoke about the recent so-called lobbying scandal.

Since seeing it live – it’s on at about 11.30pm, putting off most viewers – I’ve watched it on BBC iPlayer many times. In about 90 seconds, he beautifully sums up the churlishness of portraying the recent stings on politicians as a scandal about lobbyists, even though none were involved. This is a point being made by many decent, integrity-driven public affairs practitioners, and one which is roundly ignored by the media.  [If anyone reading can tell me when the last lobbying scandal worthy of national media hysteria that actually did involve lobbyists was, please do let me know.]

But Portillo goes a step further even than that, expounding the crucial role that lobbying plays in politics. He goes so far to say that without lobbying, politics would not function. You can watch it here, 25 minutes into the show:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b02w2wxt/This_Week_06_06_2013/

Or, if you can’t be bothered to click on it, or are simply unwilling to catch a glimpse of Andrew Neil in the presenter’s chair, here’s a transcript of what Portillo said:

“It’s perfectly clear that the things of which these people are accused would be offences. They would be against the rules and they would certainly lead to their expulsion from their parties and possibly suspension from Parliament, and so on. So it’s perfectly clear that the rules are already in place.

Secondly, it’s pretty clear that these people were all caught by a sting; in other words, there wasn’t a real lobbyist involved at all… So actually, creating a register has nothing to do with what’s just happened… If you create the register, you simply allow people to find our more easily, the people that are genuine lobbyists and those that are journalists.

But let me make a fundamental point: all politics rests upon lobbying. The principle rooms in Parliament are called lobbies. And the reason they exist is to allow the public to come into Parliament and visit their Members of Parliament, and they meet them in a place called a lobby, which is the origin of the term, and the interchange between the people who have interests, which need to be considered or even protected by Parliament and the people in Parliament, is fundamental to the democratic process. And since time immemorial, to smooth the interface between the public and the different vest interests, and the Members of Parliament, there have been people who undertake lobbying, and lobbying can be a very respectful thing, and without lobbying, politics wouldn’t function.”

Do me a favour, don’t do me a favour

Just days before the latest lobbying scandal that didn’t involve lobbyists broke, the Financial Times, expressed concern about the so-called revolving door through which civil servants and ministers pass to join companies as lobbyists. The drift of it’s columnist, John Gapper, was that we should be worried that decisions could thus, be made on the basis of favours.

We should certainly concern ourselves with how government decisions are made, but as I argued in a letter to the FT earlier this week; if you want to influence government effectively, there is no substitute for having a credible, well-argued and factually-based proposal.

In case you missed it, here is the text of my letter:

Sir, I dont doubt that former civil servants, ex-ministers, or even the occasional former prime minister can help businesses to influence government policy (We should worry about the revolving door for jobs, Comment, May 30). However, regardless of the status of such advisers, government policy is not decided on the basis of special favours. If government policy or procurement decisions cannot be justified on policy or financial grounds, or for meeting stated political objectives, then the dispensers of these favours would very quickly be found out.

John Gappers lobbyist informant is perfectly correct; large businesses do not need favours, as they will be listened to anyway. I was a special adviser for seven years, and I would never have risked my position by giving out favours to anyone.

Any business, large or small, that wants to influence government decisions will find that there is no substitute for having a credible, well-argued and factually-based proposal. There is no mystery or black arts involved. Advisers add value by helping businesses to articulate their case clearly and effectively. If they do that, then there is no need for favours.

In other words: “Do me a favour; don’t do me a favour”.

Lobbyists: how to lose friends and alienate people

When Altitude was being formed as a company and we were discussing a name for the company, I jokingly suggested that we call ourselves Bill Pottinger, so that we might accidentally be invited to tender for work. Had we gone down that route, perhaps the public affairs industry would have been spared the embarrassment poured upon it by the ‘sting’ that takes up the first seven pages of today’s Independent.

Under-cover journalists from something called the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ invited ten London firms (not including Altitude) to pitch to a (fictitious) Uzbek organisation to promote its supposed interests. And, according to today’s report, Bell Pottinger employees made some rather staggering – and rather foolish – claims pertaining to their personal influence over members of the Government and Downing Street staff.

A few points immediately spring to mind…

1. After so many attempts by the press to dirty the reputation of lobbying, they seem finally to have succeeded in including some actual lobbyists in the story. Not fictitious ones acted by journalists to catch out politicians, nor businessmen with an interest in swaying political decisions but with nothing to do with the public affairs industry. No, this time they have actually caught out some real lobbyists. Well done the Independent – you’re the first paper to at least identify some lobbyists!

2. Let’s just re-read part of that story. Ten firms were approached for the fictitious work for the fictitious Uzbeks. Of those, two refused the work and three didn’t respond. Of the other four firms, there is no mention. Could it be that they – whisper it – acted ethically? Given the apparently scurrilous nature of the entire public affairs world, surely this is the newsworthy element!

3. And while I’m on that subject: I’ve written here before about how journalists are desperate to find a group in society on which to shift the focus of public disgust from the press itself. Yesterday, the Independent gave a curiously large amount of space to the establishment of The Journalism Foundation. The paper’s editor, Simon Kelner wrote:

“Journalism itself has had a bad press recently: here is a positive initiative that seeks to redress the balance and, whatever you may think when following the latest developments from the Leveson Inquiry, it’s in all our interests that, if nothing else, we keep monitoring those centres of power.”

Quite right too, Simon. Mud has been thrown and it has stuck, even on the holier-than-thou Indy, whose owner and financial backer, we discover in Kelner’s last paragraph (by which most people have stopped reading), are the founders of the Journalism Foundation.

Lo and behold, the day after the fanfare about this cuddly new Foundation – a new knight in shining armour to salvage the reputation of the press – we have an attempt to demonise the public affairs industry. Which compels me to quote Kelner again:

“…this skulduggery was practised only by a small minority, and one of the prices to be paid for having our vibrant and diverse press is occasional unruliness born of competition.”

He is referring, of course, to the press, not to the public affairs industry, which his newspaper today smeared with one broad brush. That’s a smart line in hypocrisy.

4. Some people – especially some of those who have worked within the circles of power but then faded away and perhaps feel resentment – really cannot help but boast in order to make themselves feel better about themselves. It happened before and it will happen again – it’s the frailty of the human ego. That doesn’t make the claims true.

5. The vast majority of the public affairs industry – represented in this instance by the unidentified firms that did NOT want to work for the shady outfit cobbled together for the Indy’s sting – whether members of industry associations or not, have long called for a regulatory code. This is because they have nothing to hide and want their industry respected for the legitimate role it plays in informing government policy.

It will be interesting to see how this story plays out. By 8.15am today, Twitter was flushed with comments on why this story wasn’t gaining more coverage on the BBC. I’m starting to hope that it escalates and is addressed at the highest levels because now that actual lobbyists are involved, it cannot be ignored.

Previously, I’ve defended my industry in the belief, gained through more than a decade’s experience in it, that the many, many people I’ve worked with are representative of the industry as a whole: honest, decent people who are open in their methods and who help their clients to open doors with their messages and arguments rather than their black books. Regretfully, I was wrong.

Let’s have a proper review of the industry, looking at how the bad apples may have smeared the reputation of the rest of public affairs (if, indeed, any actual wrong-doing took place). Without such a review or inquiry, it seems that the industry is destined to death by a thousand cuts, mainly inflicted by journalists trying to lift themselves from the bottom rung of the public’s ladder of disdain.

Political scandal? Time to kick the dog again…

Last year I blogged about lobbying, pointing out how the poor old lobbyist seems to be the end of the easy target in a political crisis, the dog that politicians and media go home and kick at the end of a bad day.

It seems that history is repeating itself and, once again, a lazy shortcut down the path to an unpopular but misunderstood cohort of practitioners of the supposedly ‘dark arts’ of lobbying is once again being beaten.

The scandal of Liam Fox’s friend Adam Werrity has predictably resulted in a call for tighter restrictions and regulations on lobbyists. This case is very similar to last year’s case on which I blogged – insofar as it hasn’t actually involved a bona fide lobbyist!

Proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists have long been supported within the public affairs industry, mainly because the industry has nothing to hide. In the recent case, it was Adam Werritty, who must surely have had no doubt that what he was doing was not wholly ethical or above board. In other words, he did have something to hide.

Being neither a lobbyist or in a position where he would have wanted to publicise his dubious activities, how on earth would a register of lobbyists have made a difference? Werritty would not have been required to be on the register – he’s not a lobbyist, he’s just a chancer of a businessman who abused the position of a friend. And even if he were a lobbyist it is unlikely that he would (a) register himself and put himself up for scrutiny or (b) given his clear lack of moral or ethical compunction, be swayed by any statutory requirement to register.

But once again, the whole saga provides two of the most abhorred sections of society – politicians and journalists – to take the moral high ground and kick the lobbying dog. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

Call me Mystic Meg, part one: more woe for lobbying

On Friday I blogged about how politicians have been deflecting criticism by turning the spotlight on supposedly dodgy lobbyists. Two weeks ago I wrote about the uphill struggle that pressure groups, such as the Cyprus lobby, will face in trying to gain support in the post-election Parliament.

I should be feeling smug that the news in the last 48 hours has proved me right! Instead I am exasperated and angry in equal measures. For today, I’ll concentrate on the attempt by Dispatches to entrap politicians in a lobbying scandal, as I’m currently just too angry about the nature of the reporting of the story about MPs’ trips to Cyprus and could land myself in legal hot water.

Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have acted without regard and respect for the rules for Parliamentarians and their suspension from the Labour Party is thoroughly deserved. But putting their misjudgement in this saga aside, it is surely true that the way in which politicians have drawn negative attention towards lobbyists in recent months will have been a motive behind the Dispatches sting.

The media are increasingly hell-bent on unearthing examples of politicians acting against the spirit of the platitudes and proclamations from within the political firmament. This can then be used to portray the whole of the Parliamentary machine as without principle, untrustworthy and on the make. Which, by and large, it isn’t, but that’s not the interest of the media. So how do politicians react?

In her statement to the House of Commons yesterday, Harriet Harman announced that the Government will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, a measure that had been considered and rejected just a few months ago.

Do you see what’s happened? A news story breaks which involves journalists and MPs but NOT ONE LOBBYIST and, surprise, surprise, politicians kick the dog.

Lobbying on behalf of the lobbyist

As the green shoots of spring and recovery are appearing, so are the traditional signs of an impending election: the Conservatives are avoiding talking about Europe, Labour is defending its financial links with the unions and the party leaders’ wives are competing with their spouses for media column inches.

A more subtle sign is that politicians are diverting criticisms from the political arena onto soft targets. Bankers are number one on the list, but lobbyists are also in their sights. David Cameron has promised a crackdown on lobbyists if he becomes Prime Minister and it is rumoured that Alistair Darling’s budget will propose a ban to stop publicly-funded bodies from hiring them.

This bothers me on many levels, principally because the term “lobbying” just doesn’t apply to what our industry actually does. In more than a decade of working in public affairs in the UK, I have not been asked, either by a client or an employer, to undertake any sort of duty that would breach the spirit or principles of ethical lobbying. This is in stark contrast to my experience of working on Capitol Hill, where I saw the sort of real hard-nosed, direct lobbying that the public is being told is tainting British politics.

What we “lobbyists” do is to help our clients to identify, define, hone and articulate their messages, and to advise them who their target audiences are and how best to engage with them. Our clients might sometimes be multinational corporations, but so too might they be charities, trades unions or local government, or operating in highly-specialised industries or policy climates.

Sensible, robust governance depends upon clear, informed communications between the Government and those stakeholders which its policy, regulation and legislation will affect. And that communication is more crucial now than in the past, as career politicians with little experience outside the Westminster bubble are increasingly replacing MPs with real world experience, whether it was from commerce, the public sector, education or the armed forces.

Calling for transparency in public affairs is a no-brainer and our industry knows that its future depends upon maintaining a reputation for probity and professionalism.

My hope is that the fuss about lobbyists is simply diversionary pre-election politics. In my years in public affairs there has been one “scandal” that I can recall and that involved Derek Draper saying something a little silly, but ultimately harmless, about who he knew in Government. Hardly on the same level of deceit as, say, deliberately fiddling your expenses, is it?

Don’t disengage because of the election

With the general election almost certain to be held on 6 May, businesses and campaign groups could be forgiven for thinking that there is no point in responding or examining final reports from Government and Parliament, as they will die a natural death when the election is called.

But that would be a mistake, as most of the issues and policy proposals being discussed will be resurrected under the new Parliament/Government. Issues such as climate change, energy security, social care reform, high speed rail, infrastructure investment and planning reform will not disappear just because there has been an election. These are long-term problems for which policy makers will still be seeking solutions after 6 May, regardless of which party is in power.

Government departments currently have live consultations on issues such as a new planning policy statement, taxation of insurance companies, Social Fund reform, retailers’ compliance with the groceries supply code of practice, the Renewable Heat Incentive and regulation of local bus services.

At the same time, Select Committees will shortly be publishing reports on a range of subjects such as the major road networks, the future of local and regional media, low carbon technologies, bioengineering and the end of cheques.

A Conservative government would strive ostentatiously to portray itself as different from the current administration. And if Labour is re-elected against the odds, it will want to show that it is making a fresh start. It will be new Labour without using the word ‘new’. So there will be changes to headline policies, and different approaches to tackling the fiscal deficit will have differing effects on expenditure on current programmes.

But many of the same macro- and micro-policy issues will still be unresolved. Policy proposals being put forward today by businesses will still be relevant after 6 May. If anything, the new administration may be more receptive to policy solutions that require a longer term view. Even though ministers are presently switching increasingly into election mode, officials will still be developing policy proposals, even if only to prepare for an incoming Conservative Government. They will still be receptive to a well-argued and persuasive case that enables them to offer solutions to their new ministerial masters.

Select Committee reports published over the next few weeks risk being ignored during the increasingly frenzied pre-election period. But they will still help set the agenda in particular policy areas by offering authoritative recommendations for policy makers. And they can still, potentially, be used by businesses and policy campaigners as independent justification for their own proposals.

It is easy to be distracted by the hurly burly of the election campaign but anyone seriously interested in affecting future policy needs to keep their eye on policy development right up until the end of this Parliament.

And then start all over again in the new one.

NHS first, patients second

Yesterday was an inauspicious day for Virgin Group to renter the primary healthcare market. It bought a 75 per cent stake in Assura, the medical services group that forms collaborative joint venture partnerships with NHS GP practices to provide primary care, urgent care and outpatient services, diagnostics and day-case procedures in the community. On the same day the Department of Health ordered primary care trusts across the east of England to suspend procurement for community services.

The unstated intention of the DoH is to halt the independent investigation by the department’s Co-operation and Competition Panel into the legality of Health Secretary, Andy Burnham’s, policy that NHS bodies should be the “preferred providers” of health services before it ruled against his policy.

This is bad news for outside providers, who will see their market shrink. But it is also bad news for patients, as it will reduce choice and leave them with no option but to use an NHS provider, even if they get a poor service from it.

As a special adviser in the Department of Health, I was involved in discussions on Labour’s manifesto for the 2005 election. The final version, on which the Government was elected, committed the NHS to use new providers from the independent and voluntary sectors to provide health services. The purpose for doing so was to add capacity, promote innovation and to drive competition, or “contestability”, within the NHS. The ultimate goal, of course, was to improve the quality of patients’ healthcare.

Burnham’s speech last year to the King’s Fund, in which he stated that the NHS should be the preferred provider of health services, sent a signal that opportunities for the private and voluntary sectors were being closed down. NHS officials in one east of England primary care trust were not slow to get the message and abruptly excluded private and voluntary organisations from tenders.

A final determination of the legality of this move will come after the 2010 election. This is just as well for the Government since the motivation behind it is clearly political. Burnham’s move is designed to appease unions, like the BMA and Unison, who have never been wholly reconciled to the involvement of the private sector in the provision of NHS services. It also helps position him slightly to the left for any future Labour leadership election.

Labour’s manifesto for the 2010 election will not be as welcoming of alternative providers, but there will still be scope for them to provide NHS services. It is clear though, that the independent and voluntary sectors still have a lot of persuading to do to overcome resistance from within the NHS. This will be the case even under a sympathetic Conservative administration.

A determined campaign by private and voluntary providers will need to begin the moment the election campaign finishes.

A vote for hanging

Recent opinion polls raise the prospect of a hung Parliament following the general election. This has put a spring in the step of Labour Party campaign managers who think they might still win and caused jitters in the Conservative Party high command, which suddenly fears election victory may slip away from them. It also caused mild panic among City currency traders, who sent the pound below $1.50.

No-one likes a hung Parliament, apart from the Liberal Democrats and the minor parties, who will try to exchange their support for the governing party for items on their policy wish-lists. Labour and the Conservatives will maintain the fiction that they are focused on winning an overall majority, but privately they will be working out what to do in the event that no-one wins outright.

But what would it mean for businesses if the electorate fails to make up its mind? Of course, there will be a new raft of Ministers and special advisers to get to grips with, but those Ministers only make decisions based on official advice. And, crucially, the officials tasked with shaping and implementing policy will still be at their desks, whatever the outcome. They will remain critical stakeholders for businesses wanting to engage on policy. And policy success, as now, comes from a well-prepared, well-articulated case that persuades officials, not from connections or favours.

Parliament would also become more important, as a minority Government would need every vote to get its legislation through. Minor parties could have undue influence as they threaten to withhold the handful of votes needed to secure a majority in the lobby, while individual MPs would be more able to amend legislation or pressure Ministers into policy concessions or spending commitments. And the in-built Government majority on Select Committees would disappear, increasing the scope for inquiries and reports to be more critical of Ministers – and businesses under scrutiny.

This would require businesses also to engage more widely and actively among MPs, since they would not be able to rely on Ministers riding roughshod over minority views, especially on controversial proposals such as new runways, power stations, wind farms and large-scale retail and office developments. And with enough MPs pressing, Ministers could also be expected to make uncomfortable concessions imposing tougher environmental restrictions or new issue-led taxes.

Businesses may be hoping as much as Labour and Conservative politicians that there is a decisive election outcome. But if there isn’t, good businesses would still be able to negotiate the policy labyrinth, though it may take a little more effort than today.

Consultants: who needs them?

It may be an odd question for a public affairs consultant to ask potential clients, but what’s the point of consultants?

There are three reasons why you might use a public affairs consultancy:

  1. to supplement an in-house team
  2. as a substitute for an in-house team
  3. as an alternative to an existing, but deficient, in-house team.

But the value they deliver is largely in your hands. Getting the most out of your consultants is simple and here are some DO and DON’T tips to help you get value and keep the relationship healthy:

DO look for particular skills and experience that enhance your in-house capabilities

DON’T use consultants to do what you can already do in house

DO keep your consultancy on its toes by testing it against the market

DON’T put a consultancy through a pitch process if you know you’re not going to appoint it: it’s unfair and wastes everyone’s time

DO use them to challenge you with objective, external views; they may see things you’re too close to see for yourself

DON’T hire sycophants to tell you what they think you want to hear

DO listen to their advice, no matter how unwelcome; their fresh view might be more widely held among stakeholders than your own opinions

DON’T act on their advice without thoroughly questioning the reasoning behind it

DO use their networks to improve your political intelligence

DON’T expect access to Ministers: consultants should tell you who to see, when to see them and what to say. Politicians will meet with you because you have a legitimate right to communicate your business interests to them, not because a consultant calls them up

DO work with your consultants to define and hone your messages and materials

DON’T expect your consultants to articulate those messages: that’s your job

DO give your public affairs activities enough time and senior attention

DON’T be drawn into over-extensive stakeholder contact programmes with irrelevant stakeholders; it may just be the consultants trying to justify their fee

DO demand transparency of fees. If they charge a “management” or “administration” fee, ask them why – the practice is outdated: why should you pay extra for a consultant’s office costs?

DON’T blame the consultant if you give them no work to do; no good consultant is happy to take money for nothing

DO find time to engage with your consultants socially; a friendly relationship is usually a more productive relationship

DON’T let that friendly relationship stop you from challenging your consultant’s advice.

Businesses pay a lot of money to consultants. But both sides have an obligation to ensure that it’s money well spent.