With the Budget due on Wednesday, political commentators are going into speculative overdrive about the contents of the Chancellor’s statement.
The proximity of the general election means there will be an even greater focus than usual on where the political dividing lines are being drawn. The reality of the actual day, however, is somewhat less dramatic than it used to be, as most decisions are now made months in advance and then leaked to maximum effect over the preceding weeks.
What interests me is judging which organisations have successfully won the ear of Government. In an industry that often struggles to measure its outcomes, the Budget provides a yardstick to judge whether a government relations programme is working or not.
For every ‘winner’, there are of course ‘losers’, who suddenly find that a Treasury tax grab has destroyed their business plan or investment opportunity. What often surprises me is that it’s the same industries being hit every year – and many aren’t asking themselves why their approach to the Treasury is failing.
A recent conversation with a Treasury special adviser reinforced my view that many businesses still don’t understand how best to engage with the Budget process. The adviser concerned had been dealing with the fallout from the Autumn Statement and numerous businesses that seemed to think providing econometric modelling was enough to prove their case. In the absence of a compelling popular narrative about why a measure should or should not be pursued, they were often wasting their time.
Every industry has bad practice, with consultants making a living by promising that the impossible can be solved with the help of their black book. Nowhere is this truer than with the Budget, as many people are convinced that if only they had the ear of George Osborne or Danny Alexander, everything would be OK. The truth is that successfully influencing the Budget takes a lot of effort to convince politicians that a course of action is not only the right decision, but is also in their interests to pursue.
At the last Budget, for example, the fuel duty freeze, scrapping the beer duty escalator and shale gas incentives were examples of lobbying that resulted in real policy changes that had huge commercial impacts. The common thread was that they were built on campaigns that successfully used the media to promote their stance, third-party support to endorse their position and direct lobbying to rally politicians to their cause. In short, they used exactly the same tactics with which politicians are familiar and undertake themselves to gain election.
There has been a substantive shift in the industry in recent years, as consultants have become vastly more sophisticated in their approach to influence. Those who understand the shift and know how to build campaigns across media platforms will be quietly celebrating in a few days’ time.
Stephen Lotinga is managing director of public affairs at Edelman