At the height of the recent flooding, Sir Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, called for the creation of a national flood plan, as responsibility for water management is split between too many departments at national and local government levels.
What gives Sir Ian the authority to make sweeping policy recommendations? It’s not just Kingfisher’s strong stance on its environmental impact (striving to be a ‘net positive’ sustainable business). His credibility lies with the fact that he led last year’s Ecosystem Markets Task Force, which looked at the opportunities available to UK businesses to develop green goods and services – investments that value and protect the environment.
He is not the only captain of industry to provide counsel to the Government. It was also announced last month that former Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose is to lead a review into how management can be improved at the NHS in England, while Sir Mervyn Davies was chairman of Standard Chartered until 2009 before the publication of his eponymous report on how the Government could help get more women into the boardroom.
A decade ago, ecosystems, health and diversity were the public sector and NGOs’ remit. The change can be partly attributed to the blurring of lines between perceptions of the public and private sectors. Alastair Campbell recently said that public services are expected to perform and deliver to the standards of a private sector supplier, while private companies are urged to demonstrate more of a public service mentality and social purpose.
It goes further still: governments around the world are looking to partner with the private sector to find solutions to challenges beyond their operations or immediate responsibilities.
Of course, there are still huge challenges for the private sector. Some business leaders may feel that politicians are too quick to criticise business and position the private sector as the root of all evil. Governments are right to hold businesses to account when their practices are unfair or improper, but politicians need to recognise, and give credit to, the many businesses that are well and ethically run. The challenge for us, as comms professionals, is to ensure that the businesses we represent are credible, authoritative and sufficiently well positioned to add value when governments are looking for expert representation or counsel.
The key word here is ‘credible’. Whereas the private sector was rather late to the table on the issue of climate change and carbon emissions, many of us have been more forward thinking on other issues, such as water scarcity. Part of this is due to the business planning processes. For example, when SABMiller is looking for a location to build a new brewery, the availability and quality of water is one of the first factors to be considered.
The private sector has a huge amount to contribute to policy debates – many companies have enviable levels of strategic, technical, intellectual or innovative capability. The more open we are to sharing this capability and the more committed we are to transparency, the better positioned business will be to offer valuable support to governments around the world.
Catherine May is corporate affairs director at SABMiller