Influencing policymakers has always been important for business and its leaders, but as governments become more actively involved in regulatory reform in the wake of events surrounding the financial crisis, it surely becomes even more of a priority.

Clearly, establishing a positive and productive dialogue with governments and regulators is key in any market; as Stephen Robertson, Director General, British Retail Consortium says: "Influence isn't something you can just switch on as recession bites." But now more than ever, governments worldwide are under pressure to make businesses more transparent and accountable. Leaders and organisations need to ensure they are seen as partners in this process and aim to have a role in shaping the agenda for long-term business success.  

Although presently it seems that politicians are more concerned with putting themselves before the country, the economy or individual businesses, we should not underestimate government means to control the business environment. As Nicky Bicket, Director, Group Corporate Affairs and Group Strategy, Old Mutual plc, explains: "A company's influences on the business environment, aside from its size, should be through policymakers, more so today than ever before. In the end, it's the government's job to create the conditions for business to operate as efficiently as possible and it's certainly not business's job to govern. Relationships form the platform for this type of reciprocal arrangement, and it would be irresponsible of business not to use these relationships to influence the agenda." 

During times of political uncertainty and change such as these, government relations become even more fundamental for any serious business. The expected UK election provides an opportunity for companies to look at and reassess their public affairs activity. Peter Bingle, Chairman, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, advises that "Anticipating accurately what political change will mean translates into commercial advantage. Businesses need to assess what they want the next government to do for them and then seek to influence what happens. This involves developing individual relationships with policymakers as well as using membership of trade associations."

This type of activity becomes even more important in heavily regulated industries. Rob Woodward, CEO, Scottish Television Group explains: "Working in a highly regulated sector, I cannot overstate the importance of investing time and energy into maintaining a healthy dialogue with politicians from all parties. Developing an open, two-way relationship is key. It is also important to meet the relevant senior advisors to ministers and civil servants. Being based in Scotland, we have the added requirement to forge a similar dialogue with Holyrood as well as Westminster."

Companies should consider the related benefits of public affairs activity, especially in terms of shareholders. Stephen Pain, Former Group Corporate Affairs Director, Aviva explains: "Shareholders will expect companies to have a constructive dialogue with government in order to come out of this crisis of confidence on favourable terms. Those who can take a lead in establishing this dialogue stand more chance of building a positive reputation amongst stakeholders."

Ultimately, businesses need to find more effective ways of engaging with policymakers to ensure government policy allows for greater business performance and productivity. Ian Wright, Corporate Relations Diretcor, Diageo, believes that, "We face a paradox. As we climb from the recession, engagement with Government has never been more important. Yet politicians are in no fit state to listen. To be valued and heeded, business must make its case clearly and compellingly, building relationships for the long-term and letting the priorities of tomorrow look after themselves." 

Fostering government relations is clearly a huge topic and one which cannot be covered adequately within the limits of this newsletter so if you would like to discuss the challenges of formulating an effective strategy in more detail, please contact Criticaleye to be connected with any of the commentators in this week's Community Update.

Equally, if you would like to add comment or expand upon any of the issues raised, please don't hesitate to contact me.  We would be happy to facilitate meetings or even an event on this topic with the aim of helping companies and leaders identify what they need to do to improve their public affairs activity and implement more effective government relations programmes.

Matthew Blagg, CEO, Criticaleye