In defence of lobbying

There’s more to engaging with government than short-term lobbying for single issues


Many organisations believe that lobbying has a single-issue focus. But this is a very short-term view: engaging with the government (lobbying) should be about relationship building and recognising that governments can actually benefit in a myriad of ways.

Organisations – businesses, charities, NGOs – should recognise that engagement offers a number of benefits. It helps manage risk, the identification of potential opportunities (sometimes market opportunities) and can help develop a network of friends, allies and potential advocates which can be useful, especially in times of crisis.  

But it is not just about what we want. The development of relationships should recognise the critical role of dialogue. It is not simply about broadcasting key messages to decision-makers and expecting them to make changes. Instead, there must be a recognition that you are aiding the entire operation of government.

The government itself has explicitly recognised this truth. The Cabinet Office consultation on the introduction of a statutory lobbying register said: “Lobbying – seeking to influence public policy, government decisions or legislation – can improve results by ensuring that those developing and considering the options are better informed about the consequences of the available options.”

That means we all operate in a very competitive space to not only secure the attention of the government but also to try to ensure that we are amongst the options considered and, all being well, chosen.

Government needs engagement from business, and others, to give it the options it needs. That brings us to the more political side of government, which is the need for the party in power to secure re-election. That brings with it a requirement to maintain momentum and solve the challenges they face. If they can’t, then they risk being kicked out at the next election.

This is what makes the Prime Ministers’ ‘f business’ comment even more confusing. Businesses are the very audience that not only contribute to the economy but devise many of the options and ideas required by government to operate successfully and secure their future.

Add into this, the Government’s recent suggestion that it was businesses who failed to plan to deal with the skills shortages post Brexit that has led to petrol shortages and empty supermarket shelves. The threats of another dull and curtailed Christmas would not be because of government but due to businesses adopting short-term thinking and not taking action to deal with the challenges they face.

But the reality is that many organisations were positively trying to help government through that crisis as they had done throughout Covid as well. It takes more than one party conference speech praising the private sector to rebuild relations.

Engagement with Government is also about helping them to avoid unintended consequences. This most often happens when governments react to “something must be done” style headlines. A knee-jerk reaction can solve the immediate issue at hand but simply creates other, potentially politically damaging, challenges.

Partnership is key. As Simon Baugh, the recently appointed Chief Executive of the Government Communications Service, said in a speech to a CIPR ConferenceThat partnership across government and public sector bodies should also stretch to partners in the private and third sectors who share our goals, ambitions and values. Building public confidence that the state and the private sector can come together to take action on the things that people care about should be natural, not novel.”

Partnership can though be challenging of government as well as supportive. Where mistakes are likely to be made, they need to be highlighted, whether the government likes it or not. Otherwise, organisations simply become a stooge of government. Out of such a mess, no one emerges well. 

A challenging partner, in turn, helps to provide confidence to government. If it has supporters from the outside world then maybe that policy really will work! Particularly when it comes to new development projects and infrastructure, the Government often wants the private sector to lead. This helps it avoid the allegation of ‘picking winners’ which has been a hangover from the 1970s and the actions of previous governments.  Shadows often loom large in politics. Johnson does not want to be Heath. A PM that comes into office as a champion of capitalism only to have to prop up businesses and intervene heavily in the market disappointing supporters in the process.

So effective government engagement provides motivation, delivers new ideas and options and avoids the unintended consequences. But the PM must appreciate that a partnership cannot abuse one side regularly or blame them simply when he feels the raw politics is going against him. “F business” could, and some would argue sometimes does, become “F charities” or others.

If that continues, then partnership will not be an option and a chorus of “F U PM” may well be heard.

6th January 2022