Many organisations seem afraid or in awe of politicians and government and what they can do. It is right that they hold many of the trump cards but it can be right to reply, maybe even forcefully. When should that happen?
Government needs to be seen as all powerful. Without this, it would risk being seen as lame duck and that would have electoral consequences for the Prime Minister and political party concerned. Any threats made need to be taken seriously otherwise unwanted action may be taken. This certainly presents risk that should be managed and a constructive relationship with government is always, of course, better than confrontation.
However, sometimes a response is needed. A company or sector cannot just let itself be pummelled. Not least there could be reputational damage leading to a consumer response.
The comments made recently by Oxford University’s vice-chancellor to ‘tawdry politicians’ was a forceful and articulate response to claims being made linking high salaries for senior staff and the fees charged by universities. Louise Richardson pointed out that the fees replaced withdrawn government funding.
For the university sector, the direct challenges will continue to come. Owen Paterson, Lord Adonis and Sir Anthony Seldon have launched a report, ‘Timebomb: How the university cartel is failing Britain’s students‘, that attacks the sector in a fundamental way, claiming that students have been ‘betrayed’.
This seems like a clear situation where a more combative and forceful approach is the right thing to do.
So let’s consider a few scenarios when this type of combative approach could be the right course of action:
- when government simply fails to listen over a period of time – early and ongoing engagement is always the right course of action and is most likely to be successful. This is not though always a guarantee that arguments will be listened to. If an organisation is convinced it is right and has real concerns about the implications of a government’s course of action then it may need to shout louder;
- when the battle is through the media – politicians sometimes take to the media early to make their point. But just as first engagement with politicians shouldn’t be through the loudhailer of the media then the same applies to business as well. If it is then a forceful public reaction may be needed;
- when politicians go beyond their real powers – select committees have, for instance, been known to make demands of organisations or individuals. Such demands need to considered and then responded to, not always positively; and
- when the accusation simply isn’t true – a clear and robust response would certainly need to happen under these circumstances. But part of the risk management approach should always be to make sure that any accusations being thrown around are not true. If they are then a period of reflective silence and changed behaviours may be more appropriate. The worst thing to do would be to vocally defend a position only to find out later that you were in the wrong. That increases the level of damage and chance of intervention significantly.
Politicians are often at their most vocal when there is little else they can do or where they are trying to move any hint of blame away from themselves.
They know and understand the value and power of reputation. But they should recognise that a well-run organisation will do all it can to protect that reputation as well.