The consequences of a changing policy environment for advocacy work in Germany

by Jonas Wolframm
Read what your business can do to avoid losing its voice

With the emergence of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) Germany has seen an increase in political protesting.

The political environment in most western democracies is currently facing rapid and substantial changes. Existing power relations are crumbling, and new actors are emerging daily on the political stage. Germany, long viewed as a beacon of political stability by many, seemed to be an exception to the rule. However, as the last federal elections have proven, these times are now over.

The signs of change within the political landscape of Germany are easy to spot. On the one hand, both former Volksparteien (mass parties), the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) are experiencing a steady decline. On the other Hand, newly established or formerly smaller political forces like the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the Liberals (FDP), and the Greens have managed to gain more power and influence within the political sphere. Thus, shifting the balance of power substantially.

One explanation for the described shifts within the traditional political power structures is that the electoral behaviour of German citizens has become much more volatile. Wider societal trends such as the emergence of new cultural and economic cleavages around the topic of globalisation are dividing previously solid voter blocs into smaller entities with weaker party ties. These changes have led to a considerable loss of votes for the so-called Volksparteien.

The shift in power structures is directly influencing how parties formulate and implement political strategies. The most important aspect in this regard seems to be the demise of the classical coalition constellation which consisted of one Volkspartei and a smaller kingmaker. Instead, political colour combinations ranging from a Jamaica coalition (CDU/CSU, FDP, Greens), over the so-called traffic light coalition (SPD, FDP, Greens) to a Kenia coalition (CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens) have become possible. With the exception of the Left Party (DIE LINKE) and the AfD, German political parties have adapted to these circumstances by adopting a more flexible and consensus-driven strategic approach in order to keep all possible power options open.

What are the consequences for advocacy work?

In public affairs access to political decision-makers is crucial. However, networks and the access that comes with them often depend on personal relationships which have been forged over time. If power structures change in a short period of time – as is currently the case in Germany – many of the formerly useful contacts can be rendered useless. Thus, the current volatility in politics is effectively forcing businesses to develop new public affairs strategies and broaden their activities in the field.

One possible way to tackle the challenges described is to build new networks and focus on players which have not been a part of their traditional contacts. In order to do so, companies must strengthen investments in their public affairs activities and broaden their strategic approach. Now is the time to get active. In this context, it is especially important to take into consideration that attitudes and opinions towards advocacy work can differ from party to party. A one-size-fits-all approach does not do the job here – it is important to address this need with a tailored strategy.

Another solution to tackle the grown volatility within the political sphere is to institutionalize contacts instead of relying on personal connections. Although personal contacts are more relevant than ever, it can be a very good strategy for businesses to establish opportunities where political decision-makers and stakeholders can hold meaningful discussions on a regular basis. The goal should be to build a meeting platform which political decision-makers, as well as relevant stakeholders, consider to be an open institution for the exchange of ideas.

Due to the fact that the political environment is volatile and rapidly changing, stable and longstanding stakeholder networks are becoming more important than ever and should be a part of every public affairs strategy. The basis for a resilient network of stakeholders is trust. However, trust doesn´t come overnight, it takes time and effort to build trusting relations with stakeholders. Transparency and honesty are vital here. In return for long-term engagements with stakeholders, businesses can expect steady support and added credibility when it comes to arguing their case.

Aside from engaging directly with political decision-makers and stakeholders, businesses also have the option to include the public as a target audience for their public affairs campaigns. By using the dynamics of social media campaigns, businesses can, for example, publicly take a stand on certain policy issues and thereby exert pressure on political decision-makers within the relevant policy area. Taking a stand or expressing a political position openly can also be beneficial for trust-based relationships with aligned stakeholders. However, there is also the risk of alienating politicians and stakeholders who do not share the same views. Therefore, it is important to embed public policy related campaigns into a wider public affairs strategy and do a proper risk assessment beforehand.