This piece originally featured on CBI.
Years of going to school, followed by now even more years working in and around Government, mean that I tend to think of September as the start of a new year. As the evenings get longer and I start seeing conkers on the ground, I pack away my summer wardrobe and turn my attention to the new political term.
In normal years, I would be finalising plans for the party conferences. Maybe one of the few blessings of COVID-19 is that I’m spared from three weeks of late nights, tired feet and a diet of beige buffet food and cheap wine. But I will miss the seeing friends from all three parties, listening and taking part in policy debates and playing ‘who is jockeying to be the next party leader’ (a game I never tire of). But this year, even though we won’t be gathering in Brighton, Liverpool and Birmingham, we do need to start thinking about politics.
COVID-19 has naturally taken most of our attention over the last six months. Organisations had to make huge changes to the way they work, what they do and how they do it practically overnight. No sector of the economy was untouched.
For most business leaders, the imperative has been making it to next week, next month, the next set of quarterlies. Everyone’s focus has been on the pandemic. But we can’t carry on like this.
The reality is that we will be living with this virus in one form or another for the next 18-24 months. At Hill+Knowlton Strategies, the advice we have been giving to clients is that you need to look up and take account of the broader political and economic context in which we are operating. Whether it is understanding better the “levelling up” agenda how you can contribute to it, or what you need from the proposed changes to the planning system to help build better communities, every business needs to do a policy stocktake. What is absolutely required from Government; what should be left alone; what needs more clarity; and what can you, as a business or as a sector, influence.
COVID-19 notwithstanding, we are beginning to see policy movement for the first time in months; some might say years. Last week the Government published its National Data Strategy, as did the Climate Assembly UK. It is easy to think these are super specialised documents, only relevant for particular sectors or organisations. But the reality is both herald significant risks and opportunities for businesses in all parts of the economy and require careful analysis and considered responses. The long-awaited data strategy seeks to unlock the power of data across the economy. It could have a transformative impact on business, which could benefit from the proposed opening up of government data; but how it is shared, the ethical and regulatory frameworks around it, and the transparency of the system will be crucial. While the government will have a pretty clear view of how it would like to proceed, it is a consultation and businesses have until the beginning of December to present our views.
While not an official government report, the Climate Assembly UK Report was commissioned by six parliamentary Select Committees to understand public preferences on how the UK should tackle climate change, so does require a response from Government. It has over 50 policy recommendations to help meet net zero by 2050, many of which will have by necessity a profound impact on consumption and public behaviour. Some firms will view these as threats, but others as opportunities to develop and deliver innovative products and services in response to, for example, increased taxes to discourage flying or eating meat.
Looking ahead, the Energy White Paper and National Infrastructure Strategy are both being published this autumn. Again, these are key opportunities for businesses to understand government thinking and influence its approach.
And of course, the spectre of Brexit looms large. With the end of the transition period fast approaching, I’m working with clients to help them establish and articulate their own red lines: what they absolutely need to survive in the new European trading normal as well as what they need in order to thrive. Particularly from their requirements around the movement of people, goods, services and data in any future agreement with the EU, as well as what they need from any of the FTAs the government is committed to delivering. This gives us the basis on which to engage with government directly, through trade bodies and through the CBI, to ensure that the government is left in no doubt about the stakes.
Now is the time to get your voice heard; there has never been a more important time to focus on public affairs.