October 21, 2011
Why does the great ape known as Homo Sapiens Sapiens insist on celebrating anniversaries? Does it have some evolutionary advantage? Maybe Darwin has somewhere argued that anniversaries are the most obvious way we have of sorting our memories into appropriate categories and highlighting aspects of ourselves that we wish to improve.
Anniversaries are top of my mind this year. The process of handing over the Executor Directorship of the European Centre for Public Affairs proved to be a great deal dustier and more physically demanding than I had expected. I was determined that my successor should be able to access the intellectual history of the ECPA, which is rich, rather than just its bank account, which is not. Since the ECPA left Templeton College, Oxford at the end of the last millennium, I have stored the paper records of the organisation in a dusty outhouse. In my mind they had lain there pristine and undisturbed. In reality of course they had been buried under unwanted children’s toys, the papers for an autobiography that I will never write, furniture stored for four friends and the assorted detritus of a hoarder’s mind. For much of the summer therefore I have become an archaeologist of my own existence, digging down through layers of paper to find the occasional gem such as the Certificate of Incorporation of the ECPA on 22nd April 1986.
To reach the ECPA papers I had to move several feet of my political papers with lists of conferences attended, conferences planned and conferences that never got beyond the notepaper. Amongst these are the Rio Conference in 1992, the Rio+5 Conference in 1997 and the Rio+10 Conference in 2002. In the less dusty regions near the surface was to be found correspondence only three years old about the validity of holding a Rio+20 Conference in 2012. My notes show that nobody could agree what it would be for, but everyone seemed to feel that, as the Brazilians were prepared to host it, it would probably happen. For the record it will now take place in June 2012. We are clearly dealing here with very powerful forces in the human psyche! For he who can unlock memory can influence, if not command, the future.
I can trace the first stirrings of what was to become the Journal of Public Affairs in the papers of the ECPA from the early 1990s. It was seen as part of the professionalization of public affairs in Europe and a necessary way of correcting the bias in the public affairs literature towards American examples and institutions. It has achieved both of these goals. We should congratulate Phil Harris and Danny Moss on their vision, their optimism and their downright dogged refusal to accept defeat when contributors such as myself run late again, and again.
The Journal of Public Affairs and the European Centre for Public Affairs are both products of the evolution and professionalization of lobbying that took place in the European Union from 1990 onwards. If we fully understand the conditions which have led to their growth, we will be in a better position to predict the development of public affairs, both in Europe and the wider world in the next ten years.
Public affairs follows power. In the last two decades power has increasingly moved from the nation state to the European Union. As long as action at the European level could be blocked any one Member Country, all that was needed were the skills to persuade one’s home country to cast a veto. European public affairs became a necessity rather than a luxury as Qualified Majority Voting in the Council of Ministers became more common. It was only a matter of time before a fully fledged system of European public affairs emerged.
As the sequence of European treaties marched like great Beethoven Symphonies through the 1990s, the need for specialist expertise on European public affairs became ever more obvious. Whereas the occasional retired ambassador or re-deployed journalist had sufficed before the Treaties, amateurism was now clearly inadequate. Specialist head hunters grew to feed the new demand. Many people noticed the growth in public affairs consultancies and the new relevance of European trade associations. Few noticed the less obvious, but in the long term more significant, growth of in-house public affairs. Companies now needed to be represented in their own right in Brussels. Just as governments in an increasingly supra-national European Union had to up their game and review their mindsets, so did businesses. The corporate search for pan-European public affairs effectiveness had begun. It would continue, regardless of the ups and downs of European integration, as more sectors and countries were brought within the reach of European legislation.
More institutions meant an increasingly complex web of interactions to be understood by those who wished to influence legislation. Inevitably more lobbyists meant that lobbying was more obvious and that there were more ‘cowboys’ in the corridors. Professional lobbyists needed to protect their ‘licence to operate’. The system became ever more formal as the need to self-regulate and the perceived need to control played catch up in the European Quarter. Throughout this period technology has driven both public affairs and politics, not least in the area of what we now call ‘transparency’. Ethical behaviour was always an option in public affairs before 1990, but with the development of information technology it has become a necessity. By its very nature Brussels has always been more ‘open’ than national capitals. With the exception of Competition issues, it is now impossible to keep a secret in Brussels for more than a few days. Public affairs practice has changed and will continue to change for all these reasons.
European public affairs before 1990 had, in most cases, a refreshing naivety about it. It was a game of Snakes and Ladders. The rules were simple. The elements of chance high. The corporate memory short. In a world of limited information one sought access to the small number of people who could point you towards ladders and away from snakes. The game of Snakes and Ladders originated in India. It supposedly reflects Hindu concerns with karma, with ladders representing virtues and snakes representing vices. Since 1990 European public affairs has become more like Chess, which reached Europe from Persia at the time of the Crusades. Luck plays no part in the game, being replaced by a subtle mixture of strategy and tactics to which much thought is traditionally devoted. Chess therefore was an appropriate model for the task of influencing a European Union which had become more complex and more formal than before. It was essentially a matter of applying models to sets of data in a way familiar to the military or scientific mind. To borrow some terminology from the otherwise discredited Donald Rumsfeld, influencing the EU had become a matter of managing ‘known unknowns’.
The world that we live in now is about managing ‘unknown unknowns’. Neither Snakes and Ladders nor Chess provide a good training in this world. Rather we must look to the mindset associated with the game of Go which originated in China around the 3rd century BC. Karl Baker in “The Way to Go” notes that “Part of the strategic difficulty of the game stems from finding a balance between types of conflicting interests. Players strive to serve both defensive and offensive purposes and choose between tactical urgency and strategic plans. At its basis the game is one of simple logic, while in advanced play the game involves complex heuristics and tactical analysis”. As a very amateur Go player, I have always thought of it as a matter of trading time and space in an uncertain environment.
What then can we say about the conditions in which public affairs will develop? If public affairs follows power, where is power going? The accepted wisdom is that it is moving towards Asia, but Asia is a geographical expression that does not help us much in practical terms. The truth is that nobody can predict with any accuracy how a multi-polar world will operate. I suspect that China will be weaker than currently anticipated and that the USA will be more resilient than a study of its dysfunctional political system would currently suggest. The tenth anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towersreminds one of the dangers of predicting the future on the basis of one occurrence, however horrific. The ECPA held a special one day conference at Chatham House in January 2002 to review what I rather portentously called “The World Crisis”. We ran through the gamut of possible corporate responses and changes to public affairs practice. The contributions were as usual elegant, practical and intellectually satisfying. At the end of the event an American pulled himself to his feet, smiled bitterly and said “The only thing we can say for sure is that there will be a huge increase in American defence spending, which will create a demand for more public affairs”. Rather to my irritation he has been proved right. Much of the other speculation missed the point. The pursuit of Al Qaeda and the invasion of Iraq distracted attention both from the rise of China and the sickly state of the American economy. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but academic analysis is much closer to the final judgment. An excellent piece of work by Oliver Sparrow and his collaborators is already locating the origins of our current financial turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s. Whatever view we take of cause and effect, I see no prospect of there being a decline in the need to communicate effectively with Government at all levels and in all sectors.
It is said that one can make the Gods laugh by telling them of your plans for the future. So, for the avoidance of hubris, we are perhaps safest with some generalisations. Global Public Affairs will become more important. Indeed most public affairs at national and regional level will be intimately connected to global trends. The problem is that we don’t really know how to define Global Public Affairs. Even component phrases like Asian Public Affairs fall apart on closer inspection. I increasingly distrust the phrase as it has in practice come to mean how Western companies should operate in the multiple markets of Asia. It is much more interesting to consider how Chinese or Indian approaches to public affairs will influence the global picture in ten years time when there are many more global companies owned and run by Asians. We can say with some certainty that the governance structures of 2021 will reflect much the same issues as those with which we are now struggling.
Perhaps instead of pursuing power to locate public affairs, we should seek to predict where our problems as a species most require the ‘lubricant’ of public affairs. How will the pursuit of scarce strategic resources influence geopolitics and trade patterns? Which variety of capitalism will best survive the meltdowns of 2008 and 2012? How will the key players in the multi-polar world – China, the USA, Europe and India cope with their simultaneous political crises? How far will our failure to take early action on climate change and environmental security have a direct impact on our ability to conduct global business? By 2021 at least one of the global financial hubs – New York, London, Amsterdam, Mumbai, Shanghai or Singapore – is likely to have succumbed to an extreme climate event? Will the melting of the permafrost in the Arctic and the Tibetan Plateau have been sufficiently disruptive to persuade public opinion in developed countries that their societies are more vulnerable to ‘abrupt’ climate change than developing countries? Will the ensuing clarity of mind empower electorates to push politicians into countering the public affairs efforts of the fossil fuel lobby and their climate denying colleagues? Will we still regard social media as somehow signalling a new world of public affairs?
Those who should know tell me that, privately, the Shell Scenario team are reduced to only two realistic scenarios – “Collapse” or “Collapse and Recovery”. So it may be that we will all find ourselves in a whole new game. It is certainly true that the public affairs community, more than most, needs to remember the advice of Eric Hoffman “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, whilst the rest find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world which no longer exists”. It may therefore be time to brush up our memory of Snakes & Ladders, Chess and Go.
This article will be published in the next edition of the Journal of Public Affairs entitled “Public Affairs in the Next Ten Years: Snakes & Ladders, Chess or Go?” I would be very open to any comments on the way public affairs has changed, and will be happy to work them into my text, with an appropriate acknowledgment, if you could let me have them before 1st November.
I have at last succumbed to Christoph Leclercq’s insistence that I blog and hope to be a regular contributor here at BlogActiv.eu. No doubt tweeting will follow in due course.
Tom SpencerAuthor : Tom Spencer