Ground rules for decision-making on public policy engagement.
By Philip Monaghan
Whether it is alone or with others, big or small, business will always lobby for change.
What we need now is a lot more Lobbying for Good. In this second in a series of features by Infrangilis to coincide with our new book, Up the Ethics, we focus on how a company can select the right issue for an excellent advocacy strategy.
Issue selection might initially feel daunting given the vast array of subjects that need our attention. As with all major decisions a company makes on policy development or investment, the merits of Lobbying for Good need to be compelling.
Early ideas can be precipitated and tested via a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). A strong, independent facilitator will help move matters on more smoothly – especially if this is the first time a business has considered putting its head above the parapet.
Figure: factors to be mindful of when conducting a SWOT analysis to test ideas for issue selection
Once the areas have been identified where the business has strong performance and good internal expertise (e.g., energy efficiency or labor standards), drill down further to determine the elements that have driven this
It can sometimes be difficult for one colleague to identify another colleague’s domain as an area of weakness, so perhaps use external benchmarks to initiate discussion (e.g., Greenpeace’s Scorecard on Palm Oil Producers or Oxfam’s Behind the Brands Scorecard)
Look for key events taking place 12 to 18 months hence that may raise the topicality of an issue and open up significant engagement opportunities: this could be anything from a global convention on climate change or biodiversity through to a general election or referendum
The economic health of the business (perceived and actual) 12 months down the line should be considered; it might sit uneasily for a business to argue for living wages abroad whilst laying off staff at home
Align to Core Business
Crucially, the issue needs to be material and aligned to core business activities. As argued by AccountAbility in the Materiality Report, however, it is important not to define materiality too narrowly –issues need to be considered in terms of their relevance to:
- Short and long-term financial performance,
- Ability to deliver on strategy and policies,
- Best practice norms exhibited by peers,
- Stakeholder behavior and concerns, and
- Social norms, particularly where linked to possible future regulation.
Particular attention should be afforded to corporate responsibility and emerging peer based norms. There may be a number of standards that a company already uses that would benefit from Lobbying for Good activities. For instance, the current version of the Global Reporting Initiative Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, which is used by more than 6,000 companies worldwide, contains two public policy performance indicators (SO5 and SO6).
Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan
Getting ahead of the curve on societal need is something of an art form. Unilever’s issue selection process is led by its Advocacy team and intimately linked to its Sustainable Living Plan.
The Advocacy team (now five-member strong) was created in 2011 with the aim of stepping up Unilever’s engagement and working together with other stakeholders to bring about changes in public policy in key areas of health and sustainability. Climate change, public health and waste have been formally identified as the priority areas for policy intervention - although a reading of their engagement activity indicates international development and poverty alleviation as key areas of activity as well.
GE's Public Policy Engagement
However, the more standard route is for the issue selection process to be coordinated by the Public Affairs/Government Relations function. This can often be a weaker pathway to progressive action as it leads to old school practices of the pursuit of self-interest in the narrowest of fashions, although, as shown by General Electric (GE), more and more businesses are now seamlessly integrating the disclosure of their public policy activity with their regimen for sustainability reporting.
Semi-annually, the GE Government Affairs and Policy team asks each of the company’s business teams to provide an assessment of their legislative and regulatory priorities (with links to a GE objective). The businesses also provide input on the appropriate advocacy plan or strategy for achieving a successful outcome – including whether or not GE will advocate for a priority directly or through one of its trade associations or industry coalitions.
The Government Affairs team then determines GE’s overall public policy priorities taking account of GE’s strategic objectives. They point out that ultimately, there is no pre-assigned formula for prioritization; but tax, trade, rule of law and intellectual property protections are typically top priorities.
It is debatable whether all this activity is progressive, particularly the work around tax reform. However, GE deserves credit for disclosing the details publicly.
Choosing the Right Issue
Finally, when selecting an issue it is important to recognize that some aspects have a natural attention cycle. There is an initial pre-problem stage, which is followed by alarmed discovery and a willingness to respond.
Then, when it becomes clear that progress will be a little more difficult than first envisaged, interest cools and a campaign enters a more difficult phase requiring real effort. Things may go quiet for a while, only for the issue to resurface again as a cause for alarm.
If such a cycle applies (as happens with subjects that have been around for some time) it is important to be clear in what phase an issue is because it can have a big impact on engaging an audience.
Once the right issue is selected, your company can then turn its attention to the next critical step – building the narrative – an area Infrangilis will explore in our next feature. Stay tuned!
Part 1: Lobbying for Good: The Next Wave of Corporate Responsibility?