Politics, Procedure, Policy.
A Matter of Hierarchy
Hierarchy matters. And in the world of Public Affairs, hierarchy leads. From the type of norms to the institutional layers up to the stakeholders involved, hierarchy is omnipresent. I remember a guru of public affairs and one of my mentors, repeating his mantra over and over again: “Politics. Procedure. Policy”. A mantra that was in clear contrast with the idea that to be effective, a public affairs strategy could simply rely on transparency, awareness, and dialogue. At that time, it was thought that if your arguments were solid, backed by evidence, and powerfully articulated, they would prevail. Alas, it never worked that way. What everyone was missing back then was the primacy of politics.
From that initial, naïve perspective, a well-formulated Policy paper - accurate analyses, data-backed arguments, regulatory proposals with benefits for the business and for the achievements of public goals - was thought to be enough to strike a deal with the regulators.
Of course, even at that time, we were not underestimating the importance of Procedure. It was clear that mastering the institutional processes leading to a decision – whether legislative, regulatory, or otherwise – including rules, timing, and actors involved was paramount. And so was the need that a good Public Affairs strategy should necessarily include a plan for every ‘touchpoint’ the procedure allows for, covering government relations, stakeholder engagement, and communication.
But the layer we were not paying much attention to was the role played by Politics. Because, although extremely volatile, Politics was – and still is - the most important factor in decision-making. In all democracies, politics is based on the will of the majority of the people, which brings more attention to short-term economic and social priorities than long-term policy objectives. The key for Public Affairs is to understand how the company’s goals can be pursued in the context of the ongoing political debate, and to find 'hooks' to the priorities of decision-makers.
I often hear the misinformed view according to which corporations are the ones undermining long-term policy changes in the name of their interests. In truth, corporations suffer from politics just like everyone else. Businesses like predicting the future and being right about it. They prefer a tougher but more certain regulatory outcome to looser yet more unstable rules. A recent example occurred last year when the Trump administration attempted to roll back the auto emission standards established by the previous administration. On that occasion, a group of major automakers struck a deal with the State of California that would commit them to a standard almost as strict as the original rule. They did so because they believed it was less costly and better for business to comply with the higher standard than face years of regulatory uncertainty. But they must also have considered that the political antagonism between California’s governor and the administration would play in their favor.
Understanding the political context is critical to maximizing results. But it is also critical for good policy making because, when Public Affairs understands that context, and enriches the debate with accurate data and breakthrough analyses, it can be a formidable ally to the good policymaking we all want.
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