Policy Futures: Don’t chase the hobgoblins
By Moray Macdonald, Group Head of Public Policy
I’ve been thinking a lot about two quotes lately.
One from American journalist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken, who wrote that
“the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
The second from advertising creative Bill Bernbach,
“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”
It’s hard to look at the state of public discourse and not see the relevance of both—generating an immediate and visceral, even existential reaction in the viewer increasingly appears to be the price of entry to the modern political and media landscape. For this reason, our day-to-day news production is consumed by the need to create that emotional response: it has become a hodgepodge of gotchas, holier-than-thouism, empty promises and grotesque oversimplification that poisons our ability to discuss the very real and very, very complex hobgoblins that we actually do face.
Facing public affairs fears with practical plans for the future
According to the Munich Security Index last year, the British public’s key worries were climate change, destruction of habitats, coronavirus, future pandemics, and radical Islamic terrorism. Today the top five are Russia, food shortages, financial crises, the use of nuclear weapons and energy security (which didn’t even feature in last year’s top thirty). Just one of last year’s top five features in this year’s top ten.
Most of this year’s top five concerns were widely predicted a year ago, why did this not have any impact till now?
Politicians are hamstrung by fretting about what’s worrying people this instant, all governments—even competent, smooth-running ones un-diverted by political psychodrama—struggle to maintain any sort of momentum for thinking about the future, let alone planning for it.
And that’s why a solid public affairs programme is so important. Planned, sustained and repeated communication on the issues that matter to your business is the only way to ensure that your messages have a chance of cutting through policy markers’ day-to-day distractions to shape their decisions.
The 7 public affairs decisions every business needs to make
There are seven key trends, each that need national and local policy decisions, that will impact nearly every business over the next decade that we should all be planning for:
1. Labour supply
With an ageing population, changing work patterns, and limited migration for workers without qualifications having tightened the jobs market, we’re unlikely to see a return to the days of mass national unemployment. However, we do face increased risk from wage inflation and skills-shortages. How do we ensure access to enough people with the knowledge and capabilities our economy needs?
The pandemic and war in Ukraine have revealed just how vulnerable outsourced, global, just-in-time supply chains can be. As companies and countries take steps to secure access to the resources and products they need, they’re also working out which partners they can really trust when the going gets tough. There’s evidence this is accelerating demand for production at home; once upon a time global was the new local, will this renaissance of localism prove significant and lasting?
Slashing carbon emissions is more pressing than ever, as is the need to ensure our economy and communities have the resilience they need to face a changing climate. How easy will it be to keep environmental issues high on the agenda when consumers and voters are being squeezed by the rising cost of living and tangibly real fears about food, energy and geopolitical security?
4. Digital revolution
The pandemic massively expanded the presence of software in our lives in ways both obvious and subtle but the role of algorithms pales into insignificance in the face of machine learning and artificial intelligence. No longer a sci-fi dream, AI is here and rapidly growing in power and influence. How will governments intervene—should they intervene at all—and what rules will they set?
5. Re-shaping cities
How and where we live has and will change. Urbanisation will increase, creaking Victorian infrastructure will be replaced, and ways of organising cities round cars will be challenged.
6. A new approach to health and social care
The public cost of health and social care already accounts for the biggest chunk of spending in the UK. An ageing population is going to put this model under strain as we expect more and more from our health services.
7. New world order
Old global alliances are under strain as new ones form and fresh centres of power emerge. How does the west respond to formal or informal pacts and groupings of less friendly countries?
It’s really hard to get the public excited about the future and the policies we need to get us there, but we need to if we are to genuinely drive positive change. It’s time now for organisations to plan how they want to shape their business and begin to anticipate the policy levers that politicians are likely to pull.
How are we shaping future society? Will we look back and say we helped lift it onto a higher level? Perhaps we should remember one further pearl of Bernbach’s wisdom:
“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”