Setting policy priorities in the age of Coronavirus: industry groups

Updated: Jan 14

In a series of posts, I set out PolicyDepartment’s thinking on how to revise public policy documents, campaigns and area strategies in the light of the Coronavirus pandemic. Starting with industry groups…

In March, I set out how membership groups can stay in front when public policy moves fast. I noted how the looming Coronavirus crisis could challenge their basis for setting policy priorities. Lock-down in Britain (where I live) was at that time a few weeks away. But the experience of many countries suggested we were close to a big moment in public policy.

In that piece, I argued that to engage with policy debates effectively, trade bodies need four things:


  • A strategic vision to navigate the hard, often zero-sum choices that policy reform throws up. The better it addresses the real-world trade-offs, the more confident you can be in your advocacy.


  • A ‘big funnel’ of information sources: data, expert testimony, news, consultation and inquiry alerts.


  • A systematic approach to the policy-cycle: triage-analyse-decide-respond.


  • A systematic approach to managing knowledge: future-proof what you know against changes in personnel, and work towards a shared understanding of policy issues.


These are as relevant for the Coronavirus crisis as before. And they apply to any organisation with a strategic interest in public policy, including place-based ones like local authorities, City Deal Boards, Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities in England.


They are tough tests to meet at any time. The Coronavirus pandemic makes them even more demanding.


PolicyDepartment is working on them with clients and collaborators right now, including the British Chambers of Commerce. We draw on experience from other fast-moving situations like the No-Deal Brexit deadlines of 2019 and the Financial Crisis of 2008-09. We draw on our links into international business networks with first-hand experience of natural disasters and Covid-19 policy.


Here are PolicyDepartment’s top three tips for staying ahead in the policy game…

1. Re-set your policy compass by focusing on the choices you may have to make


It's unlikely that your pre-Covid, foundational policy document foreshadows a global pandemic. Unless you are in the disaster-planning business. Yet it dominates the policy choices made by governments. Any statement of forward policy priorities by representative groups must address it too. But the future is unknowable, so flexibility is important. Think about the following:


List the choices that matter to your members in this crisis


These will relate to safety, working in new ways and preserving livelihoods. Take one example: the balance between central direction and personal responsibility. This is a challenging one to strike - for all sections of society.


As I learned representing businesses in the lead up to Brexit: in uncertain times there is a strong desire for clarity in public policy. It helps forward planning and understanding liability. But there is also a demand for flexibility – the room to make choices and adjustments in the spirit of the policy.


Sometimes there are mechanisms available that address both – like transition periods and regulatory forbearance. But sometimes it is harder to see the scope for compromise. A good example is the tension between local, devolved and national government in maintaining common approaches to social distancing. Witness the heated debates across countries like the US, the UK and Germany. The tension here results from the diversity in the scope of our networks: some people and organisations are primarily local; others employ, travel and interact over larger distances and need consistency.


Timing / phasing


The best strategies hold actions to timescales. Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good here. Timescales are uncertain. The context could switch in an instant with developments in medical science. With so much uncertainty around, it is better to think in phases and overlapping objectives (restart, rebuild, renew etc) rather than strict timescales.


Be most clear about what you want policy to achieve


Don’t become too fixed on particular tactics. In a fast-moving crisis, policymakers are more likely to consider new and innovative policies: better to be part of that conversation than holding out for a specific action.


Know your co-dependencies


Which other sectors or services does yours depend on to operate? Are their actions anticipated, or accounted for? Common ones include schools and transport but are there others?

Look to history for clues – but tread carefully


It’s natural to see lessons from history when writing forward strategies. But no previous episode fits our present context well, so be careful to draw on a range of perspectives.

There are valuable insights from past economic convulsions. There's the Financial Crisis of 2008-9 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. It’s useful to refer to them when thinking about the dynamics of consumer behaviour, for instance, or the labour market. But they differ in crucial ways from our present crisis. In recessions, the goal of policy is usually to encourage more spending in the economy. Today, policy restricts some kinds of consumer and business spending to curb transmission of the virus.


In a similar way, there are lessons to learn from past natural disasters but context is important. Like the current crisis, sudden destructive events like tsunamis can bring activity to a complete halt. Successful recovery strategies may suggest that some institutional forms are more effective than others in getting places back on their feet. But the events themselves, however destructive, are often short-lived. The Coronavirus pandemic is a live event of global impact that is still unfolding. Much about its dynamics remains unknown.

2. Update your information sources – and look to new ones


Be prepared to look in non-traditional places for information on Coronavirus impacts. Real-time data on sector impacts are like gold dust right now. Many representative groups draw on the traditional suite of member surveys and qualitative data from workshops (all online now, of course). These remain indispensable. But also think about using Google Mobility Reports. It's a fabulous, free, almost-real-time data resource available at the local level in the UK. It uses anonymised data from Google Maps to estimate changes to the number of visits to types of location.


Academia is abuzz with urgent studies into Coronavirus impacts. University-based research isn’t always linked up with membership-based insight work as it should be. If this rings true, now is the time to renew those links. I recommend the Covid Economics page of the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the Enterprise Research Centre at Warwick Business School.


The disaster recovery literature offers valuable insights, subject to my earlier caveats. A good example is this 2017 Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery Guide by the ICC-World Chambers Federation. It is a how-to guide for place leadership by Chambers of Commerce in the wake of contingencies that bring activity to a sudden halt. It draws on the experience of business groups with first-hand experience of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods. Representative groups across the private, public and third sectors will find it useful.

3. Take advantage of PolicyDepartment’s expertise!


PolicyDepartment is helping membership organisations to think about their forward policy priorities in this new environment. (See our work with the British Chambers of Commerce on plans for a phased restart of the UK economy).


We can help you too! Our expertise focuses on:


  • Membership organisation strategy and policy campaign proofing / drafting


  • Place-based strategy and vision reviews


Get in touch to find out more.


Mike Spicer is Founder and Managing Director of PolicyDepartment Ltd.

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