One of the challenges for policy makers and managers everywhere is how best to communicate a major change of mind. Will it be negatively perceived as a back-flip by a weak leader, or recognised as a positive outcome resulting from flexible consultation with stakeholders?
This issue management conundrum was highlighted by two recent high-profile developments in Australia.
In the first case, Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison had to explain why the Government had backed down from some unpopular changes to the national superannuation system. His communication strategy was clear and unapologetic. The Minister told reporters he had listened and then made the right decision – and the story pretty quickly went away.
Contrast this with the issue management debacle surrounding greyhound racing. Reacting to a television exposé of cruel practices in the sport, New South Wales Premier Mike Baird announced a total ban on greyhound racing in the state. Predictably, animal welfare groups praised it as trend-setting and courageous, while the greyhound industry, along with their allies in politics and the media, were outraged and angry.
Aside from the arguments for and against the ban, what is of interest is how the NSW Premier managed the growing controversy. After three months of damaging headlines, and repeatedly denying reports he was about to change his mind, to the apparent surprise of no-one, the hapless Premier announced last week he had dropped the proposal.
Mr Baird certainly tried to emphasise that new rules would be introduced to clean up the sport. But what appeared on news bulletins across the country was of a sombre-faced Premier declaiming: “I was wrong. The Cabinet was wrong. The Government was wrong.” The perception was a humiliating defeat.
The question is: Did it have to be that way? There is no doubting the Premier’s sincerity, but the first important precept of issue management is to fully understand your stakeholders. Mr Baird very evidently over-estimated the extent and persistence of public attention to animal welfare, and under-estimated support for the greyhound industry and its economic reach.
Second, keep your allies and potential allies inside the tent. NSW was not able to rely on supporters from leaders in other states and increasingly looked out of step with the rest of the nation.
Third, leave yourself room to manoeuvre. While a total ban was a bridge too far, the Premier could have demonstrated leadership and secured political credit by a more measured response to a legitimate matter of public concern. Issue management is a two-way process and he needed to do more listening and consulting before jumping in at the deep end.
Finally, in the words of Kenny Rogers, know when to hold, know when to fold. The Premier’s repeated denials left him no dignified way out and he waited far too long. There is an important difference between being firmly resolute and stubbornly blind to reality.
So it’s worth considering the two strategies for managing a policy reversal. The Treasurer framed his superannuation change of mind as a virtue, responding maturely to feedback. Naturally his critics labelled that as spin to cover up a back-down, but he seemingly suffered little lasting political damage. By contrast Premier Baird went from being one of the nation’s most popular politicians to being perceived as misguided, inflexible and plain wrong. There has to be a lesson somewhere there.