Hammond must learn from Osborne’s botched financial services messaging

James Dowling

George Osborne’s announcement of the pensions freedom reforms was notable for its clear failure convincingly to address the advice gap issue until too late.

The Budget 2014 ‘guidance’ announcement was a clear afterthought, and the messaging was extremely confused, with the Chancellor seemingly using the terms ‘advice’ and ‘guidance’ interchangeably. As the Financial Advice Market Review showed, Pension Wise falls very far short of the need the reforms created.

Historically, the Treasury’s communications function has consisted of a press office – and little else.

The press office itself has tended to be staffed by policy officials on rotation, with stakeholder engagement operated by individual teams. Coordination between the two can be haphazard.

Although the press office is unquestionably excellent, the lack of professional comms expertise has meant that HMT’s communications are often tactical rather than strategic, with real opportunities missed and lack of proper coordination across HMT, Government or with the FCA, with whom responsibility on a number of key agendas is shared.

The need for a sensible approach on advice (and guidance) is only the latest, clearest, example.

Lessons have been learnt since that time – the wider communications staff was bolstered and more strategic engagement is now undertaken. A fully-integrated, strategic communications function is not itself a panacea to the kind of short-termist, tactical, approach we saw with the pensions reforms. But it might help to mitigate some of the more obvious problems.

Philip Hammond has been clear that his priority is to “take whatever measures are necessary to restore confidence”.

Faced with an uncertain economic outlook, the Chancellor is preparing to prioritise consumer and business confidence. In a very real sense, the ‘confidence’ agenda has replaced the deficit as the biggest change project in Government – misfiring on it could have catastrophic impacts for our economy and the Brexit negotiation.

Confidence in the broader sense is vital for economic growth. But if Hammond wants properly to deliver on it, he needs to ensure that HMT’s wider policy approach is as professionally and consistently communicated as it can be. HMT’s constituent stakeholder groups need it to set a lead – and offer confidence about the ultimate destination.

The adviser community is now looking to HMT and the FCA to deliver on FAMR – with real questions remaining around the successor to the Money Advice Service.

Given the need to dominate the agenda, the Chancellor should seriously bolster the strategic communications apparatus in HM Treasury while he has the political capital to do so.

For a fraction of what they could spend elsewhere, an investment in a serious, ongoing, strategic communications function could pay dividends – and ensure that the response across the piece, as well as on FAMR, lands convincingly, and is seen as sustainable. As he approaches the Autumn Statement, Hammond should invest accordingly.

James Dowling is head of public policy at Lansons