Trying to understand why nothing bloody works

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The beginner's guide to how to influence government policy

Contrary to popular belief, relatively few people in government are actually stupid. But if you work for an industry body that wants something changed, there are still things you can do.

When government backs down; industry wins. Photo: Getty

“I can't tell the Chancellor what to do,” the man from the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) told the Today programme on Wednesday morning, before (this’ll shock you) proceeding to do just that. The topic under discussion was the bonus culture. And everybody tuning in knew there was a pretty good chance that the Chancellor was going to tune in, too.

Not every industry can exert its influence quite so effortlessly. Most trade associations hoping to get their way have to rely on desperate lobbying, financial donations or other things that leave a bad taste in the mouth. A lucky few, though, are able to make their views heard even without any of this nonsense. Here's a helpful guide to making sure yours is one of them.

Have a gun to the government's head

First off, choose a sector that has a realistic chance of bringing the country to its knees. Ministers are unlikely to care when the British Florist Association warns that Defra's latest wheeze is going to result in a national chrysanthemum shortage. But if you can credibly claim that a particular policy will end in blackouts, financial crisis or a tenth of the government's tax base simultaneously moving to Zurich, ministers are likely to listen. The voters might hate your guts, but it’s still the government that’ll get the flack if the country starts to break down.

Most of these are empty threats of course. Few people genuinely want to bring the country to its knees, and absolutely no one wants to move to Zurich. So that's where step two comes in.

Know things that the person at the other end of the barrel doesn't

Contrary to popular belief, relatively few people in government are actually stupid. There are, though, industries that are sufficiently arcane that the people inside them inevitably know things that civil servants don’t. At the height of the last boom, investment bankers were trading derivatives so complicated that even their own bosses didn't understand them: the government agencies charged with monitoring and regulating them had no chance.

This imbalance inevitably gives the side with the secret knowledge a certain advantage. When the BBA claims that the latest wheeze to reform the financial sector will inevitably result in complete economic collapse and the reversion to a Westerosi-style feudal civilisation, then those in government can’t, with complete confidence, say that they’re wrong. Those in government tend, too, to be risk averse.

So, the proposed policy change is quietly watered down, or dropped altogether. Government backs down; industry wins.

Over time, there is a risk that the public sector could build up the knowledge and expertise required to call these bluffs, of course. But truly government proof industries have one last trick up their sleeves.

Pay more than the guys you're negotiating with

Let's say you're the civil servant tasked leading a major policy initiative that affects the private sector. At first you're at a disadvantage, because the people you're negotiating with do this stuff for a living and know more than you do. You probably end up signing off on some pretty shoddy stuff.

Do this for a while, though, and you'll start to learn how these things work. Your regulations will have fewer loopholes; the contracts you negotiate will be better for the government and less lucrative for its partners. The imbalance of knowledge begins to erode.

Eventually, though, one of the consulting or contracting firms you’ve been negotiating with offers you a job. You’ll be doing exactly the same thing as before: you’ll just be sat on the other side of the table. This new job pays twice your current salary. Exactly how committed to public sector values are you feeling?

In other words, as long as the private sector offers salaries that the civil service can’t, knowledge and expertise will flow in that direction. The public sector can’t hope to keep up.

All this is a simplification, but it does, I think, hold true. There are certain industries that, rightly or wrongly, the government thinks it needs. All too often, when negotiating contracts, when debating changes in regulation, it finds itself outclassed on both technical knowledge and negotiating expertise. And it’s completely unable to close that gap.

The result is a terror of clamping down on bankers' bonuses or surging energy prices, and outsourcing contracts that function like cash machines. It’s one reason why the British government, which the constitution grants quite ludicrous levels of executive power, spends so much of its time cowering impotently before some set of corporate interests or another.

And so we get the crowing of people like our friend at the BBA. When organisations like his talk, ministers are inclined to listen. He can't dictate government policy; but to a depressingly great extent, his wishes will be reflected in it. More to the point, he knows it.