The end of private public affairs?

Here at Connect we have been turning our attention to 2015, not just what might happen politically, but what it might mean for the business of public affairs.

Over the past decade there has been a significant cultural shift in the UK, from ‘behind closed doors’ to a demand for openness and transparency. Secrecy is no longer acceptable unless genuinely in the national interest – and sometimes not even then. The blurred lines between what is private and what is public and will likely continue to provoke interesting debates and dilemmas, particularly in the relationships between Government and business interests.

The new generation of Facebook-friendly MPs are beginning to understand that, at some point, everything gets into the public domain. The notion that MPs act as solo players, answerable to no one bar their constituents once every five years, seems unsustainable. And with growing pressure to introduce some form of public recall for MPs, even that protection is set to be formally weakened.

So now, politicians will enter Parliament understanding that being an elected representative is a job not a club. Inevitably, this will lead to the further professionalisation of politics, where Parliament is treated more and more like a normal workplace, in which employers and employees have clear rights and responsibilities, with proper processes for HR, expenses and grievances.

For those wanting to engage with and influence decision-makers, the established rules also change. Reasoned argument is still important, but public opinion and constituency relevance will almost always win over. And as for the future of boozy lunches, corporate hospitability and foreign trips which some lobbyists have relied upon in the past? Just consider how the marginal MP might  justify them to their local constituency party.

This era of information overload is also fuelling disengagement with party politics. On the one hand, the proliferation of political content creating a more sophisticated informed electorate, driven by issue specific campaign and susceptible to waves of opinion. On the other, it’s overwhelming and alienating for those who struggle to make politics relevant to them. So how will the 2015 politician thrive in this post-party political world? Will our green benches be increasingly filled with mavericks and cads – Boris’, Nigels and Nadines who are the only ones who can break through the noise?

For businesses, the age of transparency will see even greater public scrutiny of corporate governance issues. Every company – big or small, private, public or not-for-profit – now needs to focus on reputation management amongst far broader audiences than previously. As those forming (and increasingly, influencing) public opinion become more diverse and organised through the likes of and 38degrees, or through spontaneous hashtag campaigns and data-digging, the need for scrupulous, honest and beneficial public affairs and corporate communications becomes key.

For public affairs professionals, the changes are exciting and fascinating. But without a doubt, as opinion-forming gets more complex and policy-making more open, great public affairs is more relevant today than ever before.

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