Mike Katz, Freshwater: A route through the jungle

Clients need sector specialists who can navigate through a complex political landscape.

Mike Katz, Freshwater: A route through the jungle

Once upon a time, public affairs was simple. Clients wanted to talk to people who knew a few MPs and understood what was a pretty opaque political system.

Today they sense an additional need for detailed, in-depth sector knowledge combined with a clear understanding of both the business environment and the policy backdrop.

A morning spent reviewing the relevant websites would enable the diligent researcher to establish a basic knowledge of how Parliament works.

An afternoon spent Googling the right government departments would yield the names of the key civil servants.

So being a political animal is not enough. Each sector is unique and it's no longer enough to simply understand how the political system works. Clients want awareness, comprehension and understanding of the challenges they face and the opportunities they might exploit.

In part this change has been driven by the increasingly complex interface between the public and private sectors. Transport is a good example. It is a complex mixed economy of private companies running public services on roads, rail, water and in the air.

Coalition politics obviously presents an added layer of complexity. The different perspectives of the two coalition parties - indeed of individual MPs and ministers within those two parties - makes a broad-brush approach at best useless and at worse dangerous. Precision, which can only come through knowledge and experience of a sector, is vital.

Today's public affairs consultant needs to know his or her specialist fields in order to be able to respond quickly, spot opportunities and develop effective initiatives. And, of course, no single company can specialise in everything.

For instance, over 20 years at Freshwater Public Affairs - and in our previous guise as The Waterfront Partnership - we have developed a specialism in the transport, energy and local government sectors. We don't try to compete with firms who work in pharma, or specialise in financial services. But we feel we've developed an understanding in certain businesses that clients want and expect us to have.

The skill set for public affairs is shifting. Political or civil service networks will always be important, as will having a gut instinct about how a politician will react. But to compete in a crowded marketplace for opinion-formers' attention, we need people who can interrogate and understand complex research, make detailed policy arguments and understand the intricacies of a client's operating environment.

We live in challenging times. But despite - or even because of - the Government's deficit reduction programme, providing a platform of dialogue for the companies and organisations providing public goods or services will continue to be a necessary commercial requirement.

Our job remains that of encouraging and supporting organisations to understand the need for dialogue and communication with key stakeholders.

So it is no surprise we are now working with train operators who want to meet all the new MPs elected along their routes. The logic is simple. They want to meet the MPs before the MPs come looking for them with a complaint from a constituent. But they also have the opportunity to discuss the impact of the Government's franchise review or the direction of Network Rail.

Such forward thinking will mark out the winners from the losers in the difficult times ahead. Clients need people who know the terrain to help them navigate a route through the jungle.

Mike Katz is managing director of Freshwater Public Affairs


- Which public sector budget cut is likely to be the toughest for the Government to push through?

They will all prove tougher than expected. Opposition to the very first one - abolition of universal child benefit - shows just how challenging it is going to be. But the Government will settle for less than it is currently demanding.

- Which public sector organisation has made the best case for ring-fencing its budget, or minimising any cuts?

The military and the police have always been good at fighting their corners. The effort of the scientific community has also been impressive.

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