Harnessing business expertise for good policy gains

 The stopwatch for next year’s election to the Northern Ireland Assembly has started. Whether that time runs out next May, as initially planned, or before that, remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear – the Stormont to-do list is long and getting longer.

The recent labour market stats suggest an encouraging economic outlook in Northern Ireland though the eagle-eyed reader will already have also noticed the increasing inflationary pressure of late.

Whilst economists disagree on what the full impact of the furlough scheme coming to end will be and the size of the pandemic bill, most agree that the economic effects will be felt for a long time yet amid tightening public finances.

In the context of Northern Ireland, each of the parties will begin the election period fully aware of the challenges and the list of priorities that face an incoming Executive who will be acting on our behalf.

Importantly, there is a key role to be played by business, the third sector and wider civic society which is often mischaracterised or overlooked altogether. By their very nature, political representatives are not always fully knowledgeable of the issues at hand.

They are required to create and scrutinise policy across a wide range of areas on our behalf – they are generalists by necessity. Similarly, the civil service is a government administration. Whilst some civil servants will develop significant expertise in their own areas of policy, it is that extra real “on the ground” industry experience that can make the difference in terms of efficacy and stakeholder buy-in to new policy ideas.

As experts in their fields, businesses, charities and other civic organisations play a vital role in our democracy by providing information, ideas, challenge and scrutiny and this input is regularly used to help elected representatives and civil servants make good policy.

The absolute key thing is in how this engagement takes place. The overwhelming majority of political relations between organisations and elected representatives is completely legitimate, transparent, positive, and ethical in nature. However, the public affairs industry has been working hard over the years, through initiatives like PRCA’s Public Affairs Register and the Public Affairs Code, to take the lead on rooting out the limited number of instances of unacceptable practice.

For businesses and the third sector, thinking ahead to the Northern Ireland Assembly election is vital for ensuring their voices are clearly heard on important matters that will impact them and their ideas, experience and expertise are desperately needed to collectively address the challenges that lie ahead.

Some of the issues that we be facing an incoming Executive are obvious and have already received significant media attention, such as the need to tackle our growing waiting lists and stimulate our economic recovery in a post-pandemic context. But there are opportunities as well as challenges.

With a new Energy Strategy due to be published later this year, which the industry has already been working closely with the policymakers to shape, there is an unprecedented moment looming now to work together to meet our climate change and net-zero ambitions.

The commitments under the New Decade, New Approach Agreement for a new Economic/Industrial Strategy and Investment Strategy present further opportunities for public-private collaboration to enhance this region’s position as a global hub for tech and the creative industries.

As we approach the Assembly Election in a post-pandemic context, now is the time for businesses and civic organisations to harness their experience and expertise and demonstrate their ideas and constructive challenge. This can only help our economy and society progress and prosper and ensure we get it right.