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2021 Trends Report: Public affairs and stakeholder relations

Across the country, all levels of government are balancing how to support Canadians and businesses struggling with the consequences of the pandemic, while setting the parameters for economic recovery. It now seems likely that a vaccine will be available at some point in 2021; while the news was met with a sigh of relief, the work is far from over for public administrations. The recovery process will bring its share of challenges for governments—deficits, labour negotiations, pressure from opposition parties—but also opportunities for organizations, as new programs are created and major projects launched to jump-start the economy.

Here are some of the trends our public affairs experts see for 2021:

Federal elections on the horizon

Rumours are swirling around a potential federal election in 2021. While COVID-19 is the top issue, it has also exacerbated lingering political tensions. The Trudeau government is currently topping all major polls, and its COVID-19 response has been received well, especially when compared to the United States.

However, opposition parties see openings they think they can exploit. The Conservative Party will be a refuge for Canadians longing for more fiscal restraint and decentralization; the NDP and the Green Party will attract those who want to accelerate the transition away from combustible fuel and build a fairer society; and the Bloc Québécois will federate sovereigntist forces. Will Parliament trigger an election next spring? If so, will Justin Trudeau’s brand of centre-left politics earn him a third mandate? And what will be the ballot question this time around?

Tiéoulé Traoré, senior consultant – NATIONAL Ottawa

Getting on the frontline of the economic recovery

In 2021, all governments will be working to restart their economies. Public administration and their staff will be fully mobilized by this task. How can businesses and organizations manage to get the government’s attention in these conditions?

Organizations must first conduct a thorough analysis of the political environment. Who are the main actors of the recovery? What sectors are prioritized by the government? What programs have been set up? The development of a compelling narrative will help define projects and present them in a clear way to public officers who have been overloaded since the pandemic started. The next step is identifying the right communication channels and knowing how to use them. Prebudget consultations will be prime opportunities to present projects to support the economic recovery. Organizations should also consider using public speaking opportunities to propose policy ideas and advance the decision-making process.

Guillaume Fillion, senior consultant – NATIONAL Quebec City

Virtual participation is here to stay

When it comes to community relations and social acceptability, we saw the rise of virtual platforms for public participation. After a few months of adaptation, governments and public and private organizations have successfully made the transition. One of its unexpected benefits has been an increase in the number of citizens participating. However, we cannot overlook the exclusion of people who do not have access to the required technological tools, or the skills to use them.

Face-to-face interactions will likely be back at some point in 2021, but the usage of virtual platforms for public participation is here to stay, just like e-commerce and teleworking. How will organizations adapt? Will we see the emergence of new best practices? Will these tools fulfil their promises of an enhanced democratic life? How much energy will be invested in making sure that these tools allow more people to have their voice heard, rather than causing exclusion?

Pierre Guillot-Hurtubise, senior vice-president, Public Affairs and Social Acceptability – NATIONAL Montreal

Tough labour conversations ahead

We know employers are thinking about the health, well-being, and resiliency of their employees, but they are also thinking about financial sustainability—particularly in the public sector. As provincial governments fall deeper into the red, the stage is set for some difficult conversations in terms of labour relations. Earlier in the year, we saw some relatively quick and quiet settlements. We’ve also seen some generous agreements from governments that have traditionally held the line. With budget planning, pandemic response, and public opinion top of mind, it will be interesting to see how governments navigate the waters into 2021.

This reality underscores the importance of good communications planning before, during, and after bargaining. Coupled with a sound labour strategy, it can help build trust, mutual respect, and ensure both parties will be able to work together when they step away from the table to face the challenges ahead.

Kristan Hines, senior vice-president, Public Affairs – NATIONAL Halifax

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