Tinker, tailor: Communicating the levelling-up agenda

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher 

In trying to win the ear of the UK government, many organisations claim that their work contributes to the levelling-up agenda. Perhaps they are right. However, little attention is paid to what is possibly the most important nuance of all, which is that the levelling-up agenda can mean very different things to different parliamentarians.

Levelling-up isn’t a straightforward ‘policy’ in the traditional sense. Nor can it be determined by any one single metric or piece of legislation. Rather, levelling-up is more of a catch-all term that embodies a complex set of institutional, fiscal and social reforms that together form a broad ambition for the government.  

It is important that organisations realise – as the levelling-up tsar himself, Neil O’Brien MP, said – the measure of levelling-up will be very different across the country. For example, in Devon and the South West access to high-speed broadband might be the most important measure of levelling-up, while in the West Midlands and North East better transport infrastructure may be the key indicator. 

Parliamentarians are aware of the issues their constituencies care about, and what the measure of levelling-up looks like to them, and organisations would do well to recognise and approach this in three ways.

Firstly, always think local. It’s widely accepted that the success of levelling-up will be measured in smaller areas, not big regions. O’Brien says “we aren’t just interested in the difference between, say, Yorkshire and London, but in the differences within them. Places with problems can be right next to places that are booming.” When communicating with parliamentarians and with government, the more localised you can be, the more likely your argument will land.  

Secondly, lead with figures. Dominic Cummings and his allies may have left Number 10, but this government continues to be driven by the data. Local statistics and evidence are not only helpful. but they are essential when making your case. With the added pressures of the pandemic, government and parliamentarians are turning to organisations to provide evidence-based solutions and policy ideas.  

Lastly, focus on the long game. The 2019 Spending Round made clear and the forthcoming Budget is likely to reiterate that this government is committed to a longer-term strategy when it talks of levelling-up across the whole country. Naturally, there are some things that can be delivered quicker than others, such as building new school and repairing roads. However, levelling-up should be perceived in the context of a longer-term ambition to improve our economic resilience and restore our cultural and social fabric.

To conclude, when communicating the levelling-up agenda to government, organisations would do well to remember the simple adage, “you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

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This piece was written for our website. 

2021: A review

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, spoke to Matt Honeycombe-Foster at POLITICO about the future of the industry. The image below includes the comments that were used for his article, otherwise you’ll find the full transcript as a blog post.

Do you predict public affairs/comms industry will carry on with bits of the ‘new normal’ even as Covid comes under control?

Much of what’s taken place over the past nine months has been in the works for a while e.g., living healthier, working remotely, shopping online, leveraging technology and thinking digital.  

What’s happened is the pandemic has accelerated the rate at which governments, organisations and individuals alike were already adapting to new expectations.

You could argue that there’s been – apologies in advance to all PRs and journalists – a turning point, sea change or paradigm shift.  

Even now that we have vaccines, I doubt we’ll return to our old ways of working and living; a lot has happened. We’ve become accustomed to new habits and norms and become more resilient.

That aside, we’re a people industry – our successes are built on networking and relationships; we absolutely need that face-to-face time. That’s certainly true for new start-ups like do Different.

I cannot wait to be able to host in-person events for the PRCA Corporate Group and Conservatives in Communications again soon. Zoom fatigue has certainly crept in.

What were the big lessons of 2020 that are likely to stick?  

1) Trust in your people and partners and ignore all talk of presenteeism.

The key to making remote working work is for managers to trust their colleagues. In turn, all colleagues must deliver – at home and in the office. It’s really that simple. Get it right and the benefits can be a-plenty.

And, I believe people have got it right. They have risen to the challenges posed by the country’s response to the pandemic.  

2) Corporate reputation remains king.

While some functions in communications rise and fall in terms of where they are in the pecking order, corporate reputation management consistently remains among, if not at, the top of the league when it comes to what businesses should prioritise in terms of PR.

Yes, digital and internal communications played a critical role throughout the year – and will continue to do so into 2021 – however, it is reputation – the overall perception of an organisation that is held by is external and internal stakeholders (based on its past and current actions as well as its future behaviour) – where the bulk of investment should be targeted.

What are the main political and policy battles you’re watching out for in 2021?

If you thought 2020 was going to be a wild ride wait until 2021.  

The fight against coronavirus will continue, the impact of Brexit – either with or without a deal – will follow closely behind, the new US administration will push a whole different agenda, the Scottish, local and mayoral elections could be quite challenging for many, the Nationalists will continue to push for another independence referendum and all this while unemployment and debt soars.

Senior leaders need public affairs partners to help promote and defend their business interests, but also PR support to build their brands, earn trust, protect reputation and generate new leads. Advocacy and communications have never been more important. Thankfully, practitioners have demonstrated their value.

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Time to double-down on digital infrastructure

Finley Morris is Lead for Young Conservatives in Communications and is a Parliamentary Researcher

“In these exceptional times, the most precious commodity is confidence. Government has a golden opportunity with the National Infrastructure Strategy to set out an ambitious but deliverable plan for the nation’s economic infrastructure.”  

James Heath, National Infrastructure Commission CEO, commenting earlier this month is right. The coronavirus pandemic has not only presented the Government with a “golden opportunity” to deliver on its ambitious commitment to delivering gigabit-capable broadband across the country by 2025 and 5G by 2027, but it has brought the unprecedented need to deliver on it.  

By focusing on these core manifesto promises, the Government would do well to use the National Infrastructure Strategy later this autumn to double-down on its efforts to deliver the urgent digital infrastructure improvements needed across the UK. This renewed effort would play an instrumental role in supporting the economic recovery of the UK, and for the worst affected regions such as the North, Yorkshire and the Midlands.   

Covid-19 and the accelerated demand for “levelling-up”  

Even before the pandemic and the shift to working-from-home, improving digital connectivity in the North and the Midlands was crucial to the Government’s chances of “levelling-up” the country. 

There is a host of evidence – not least in the articles published by Digital Tories – which shows the direct benefits that would be felt by regions across the UK from the delivery of improved digital connectivity. Enhanced levels of productivity, greater economic activity and more employment opportunities are just three. 

Furthermore, enhanced digital connectivity delivers wider socio-economic benefits too, such as the opportunity for remote healthcare services, real-time data sharing and a greater scope for the use of artificial intelligence. However, for some parts of the country, simply getting decent broadband coverage was a challenge throughout the lockdown.  

Several ‘Blue Collar Conservative’ MPs have called on the Government to scrap its plans for HS2 (considering the pandemic) and have made the case that in order to truly deliver on the levelling-up agenda, delivering high speed broadband should take precedence.  

Figures from the New Economics Foundation show that 40 percent of HS2’s benefits would flow to workers commuting to London, with only 18-10 percent going to workers in the North and the Midlands. The Government should consider re-prioritising the money, energy and attention from projects like HS2 and spend it on speeding up the delivery of digital infrastructure.  

Supporting economic recovery 

Delivering on its ambitious targets for the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband would be a great way for the Government to support the UK’s economic recovery; delivering economic output, capital investment and greater job opportunities are some of the benefits that would be materialised across the whole country.   

A recent report published by the Centre for Policy Studies found that a faster rollout of 5G infrastructure “would help deliver a quicker and stronger economic recovery for the UK.” The report supports the argument that the delivery of 5G across the country would significantly help the UK’s economic recovery, by generating £34.1bn in economic output if the Government meets its ambitious target of doing so by 2027. This is more pronounced in the long-term, whereby the access to digital services and reliable connectivity – that has been essential to the country’s response to Covid-19 – will be integral to the resilience, economic security and productivity of our four regions.  

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs; the characteristics of large digital infrastructure projects – such as their long-term nature, their complexity and often their interdependence – means the rollout of 5G and of gigabit-capable broadband offer significant opportunities for job creation in the face of record unemployment. A report by WPI Economics estimates that the rollout of 5G will create over 600,000 jobs in the UK by 2030, with potentially even greater productivity benefits being materialised in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom.  

The challenges facing the country are epic in scale; the Government’s interventions and policy measures to support the economy have been historic in nature. It is therefore reasonable to call for an unprecedented and unwavering focus on digital infrastructure delivery. While there is a myriad of technical, regulatory and political reasons behind the delays to the rollout of 5G and gigabit-capable broadband, the coronavirus pandemic should not, and cannot be one of them. 

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us. 

This piece was written for Digital Tories