The Need to Campaign
It is never enough, nowadays, merely to announce a new policy or procedure - introduce to new laws and regulations - and then expect instant compliance. We have to get the public and/or colleagues on our side, or else even the cleverest of policies will fail.
Katie Perrier said this after the disastrous announcement of changes to social care policy during the Conservative 2017 election campaign:
'... it was the selling of it that was the problem. I sat in too many meetings in Downing Street talking about the frontline problems of social care and the NHS not to have huge respect for the effort to tackle this head on without ducking the costs. But policies like this need weeks of warming up journalists, charities and industry leaders - not whacked out in a manifesto and briefed the night before.'
Indeed, experienced change managers recognise that they are in fact engaged in what amount to a permanent campaigns. Trollope's Phineas Finn had it about right when he said that:
"Many who before regarded legislation as [wildly fanciful] will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as ... possible, then ... probable; and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made."
Selling the Policy
There is a fundamental truth as follows. If a policy decision cannot be easily communicated and defended then it should be reconsidered.
And in order to change minds there has to be a compelling narrative as well as supporting facts, statistics etc.
But very few policy decisions cannot be criticised from certain perspectives. There comes a point at which consultation and analysis must cease, and decisions need to be announced. Those decisions will inevitably become the object of critical scrutiny by those affected, as well as by potential or actual enemies such as other businesses, politicians, regulators and the media. Policy advisers now have a duty to be less analytical and instead help their bosses present their policies and decisions in the best possible light. In order to carry out this task, we must put aside any doubts (and sometimes also put aside inconvenient facts) and look at the issue through their bosses’ eyes in order to help them express their beliefs and defend their policies as effectively as possible.
Whenever you are thinking about the presentational aspects of a policy, there are a couple of things to bear in mind:
- We may need to be proactive in seeking opportunities to publicise our organisation's policies. We need to be particularly pro-active in looking for social and mainstream media and other opportunities, including in connection with developments in related policy areas elsewhere.
- Don’t be mesmerised by the media. There are lots of other ways to communicate your policies, including via the web and by getting key opinion formers and senior stakeholders on your side.
Advice Specifically for Civil Servants
Ministers will usually want their policies to be set within the Government’s wider agenda. So every important speech, letter or magazine article has to speak to current key themes before focusing down on its particular subject. If you do not have a note of current themes – and they do change from time to time – then consult your Press Office.
Do bear in mind that there are strict limits to how far we can go without compromising our political impartiality. On the one hand, it is perfectly proper for us to prepare drafts for Ministers (including draft Parliamentary Answers) which praise the Government’s policies, and it is perfectly proper for our drafts to omit facts and arguments which might cast doubt on the appropriateness of those policies. In doing this, we are not being unprofessional. Rather, like the barrister whose principal duty is to the court and who does not necessarily believe in the client’s case, we are simply providing the best possible professional service to our clients, without going so far as to mislead either the Minister or Parliament.
On the other hand, we may not explicitly or implicitly criticise members of, nor the policies of, the Opposition, nor may we criticise the actions or performance of the current Opposition whilst they were in Government. Also, anything in a draft that purports to be a fact must be verifiable. Nor may we serve up unverifiable generalisations. If you feel that Ministers would want to make a statement which cannot be verified then you should suggest that they say something like: ‘I believe it is clear that ...’ or something of the sort, so attributing the statement to the Minister, rather than implying that it cannot be questioned.
Try not to offer great sounding phrases that sound stupid when analysed properly. PM David Cameron once announced a number of initiatives costing a total of £240m. One commentator noted next day that ...
'we shall (in the PM's words) "wage an all out assault on poverty and disadvantage" for roughly £3.74 per head of the British population. Remind me to let you know how that goes.'
Incidentally, Ministers are particularly sensitive about publications put out by departments. Even the most obscure of documents can contain embarrassing ‘expert’s’ comments or ambiguous facts – often stuck in an obscure annex. Commentators will then use the document to attack a Minister – even though he or she may never have seen it. Of course such documents must still be published, but Ministers are entitled to be warned about possible problems, and given an opportunity to prepare their comments. All documents should therefore be read in detail by someone other than their author to check for problems.
And we must be particularly careful when supporting our Minister in ‘the box’ in the House of Commons, or sitting in a Committee room anywhere in Parliament. In particular, it is a dead give away if we put our head in our hands when our Minister is asked the one question that we have particularly dreaded.