Vision, CEOs and ministers: how to get minds meeting

The government has no vision, business CEOs commonly complain. Nor does the National party, they often add. Politicians shrug their shoulders. What can be done?

There are lashings of government “strategies”, laced with multi-syllabic abstract nouns and fine adjectives. But few CEOs see “vision” in them. They are either unaware of these documents or are unimpressed or bamboozled by the language or think the strategies don’t in any case amount to vision or amount to the wrong vision.

But what do CEOs mean by “vision”? Sometimes boldness: a real road from the airport to Auckland’s centre so foreign moneybags habituated to airport-link expressways feel their trip was worth it; an infallible electricity system; ambitious wealth (and sporting) targets and some Aussie bravado to enthuse and invigorate.

Sometimes CEOs pining for “vision” seem to be just expressing frustration born of their struggle to convince boards or foreign bosses to invest in a small, distant economy with spongy prospects.

“Vision” in that case is removing impediments to profits such as tax rates, Resource Management Act tribulations, labour laws, immigration rules or a bureaucracy that is too big or too intrusive or too obtuse — or just a lack of legal and regulatory certainty because of constant changes.

Politicians, who have to win elections with votes from people who are not CEOs, are never sure which “vision” they are failing to produce. They try charm offensives or summits and turn up to conferences — or conclude CEOs talk a foreign language.

And when they do produce something bold that approaches “vision”, as Helen Clark did at the weekend on climate change, they usually get caned by interest groups — often business ones. The Greenhouse Policy Coalition responded exactly on cue on Monday.

Nevertheless, Clark and her branding team have figured that business-as-usual is unlikely to win a fourth term and the cabinet must project a sense of purpose and direction that will resonate with voters. That is behind the new climate change push.

That poses a challenge to business CEOs. If they want a business-friendly “vision”, they need to be in on the ground floor. And that requires broad consensus across business on future directions that goes beyond generalised wishes for less tax, smaller government (with specious sectoral needs-and-wants exceptions) and lighter regulation (again with exceptions).

There have been attempts to lift CEOs’ sights: Auckland University’s Knowledge Wave conferences, David Skilling’s work at the New Zealand Institute, aspects of the Metro project in Auckland. Business New Zealand surveyed its wide membership before the 2005 election and translated that into a set of aspirations that it put to all parties.

A toe-in-the-water attempt is being made today to move this on a bit.

The Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) has got Michael Cullen to invite 70 hand-picked CEOs of large companies and medium-sized companies in fast-growing sectors to a behind-closed-doors, “exclusive, invitation-only” “business pre-budget summit” to:

* “contribute directly to New Zealand’s political agenda,

* “advise ministers and senior officials on the key issues for next year’s Budget and beyond and

* “personally offer practical steps to deliver growth, economic transformation and long-term development.”

The invitation told the select 70 that “the government will be listening”.

Yeah, right, is CEOs’ likely reaction. Clark’s weekend speech was in character for her government: top-down, with consultation to follow, rather than bottom-up, real consensus-building. What’s the point?

Moreover, Cullen is often combative or offhand — as he was when I first asked to talk to him on this.

But overnight he mellowed. He is not exactly looking for “vision” from today’s gathering but he did tell me he sees it as potentially “useful” and generating “positive engagement”, especially since the BCSD is not a sectoral lobby group. The BCSD, which is headed by former Labour cabinet minister Peter Neilson, has credibility with ministers for building a business constituency for environmental issues such as climate change, energy efficiency, water and waste.

The BCSD’s focus is a 10-20-year horizon. Skilling will set the scene and the topics cover stimulating investments, lifting productivity and efficiency, planning for a “sustainable future”.

The aim is to feed a business view in to ministers just when they are beginning to bid for Budget funds and thereby maybe also inject a longer-term business-friendly dimension into Budget strategies.

Cullen, who will outline the immediate and medium-term fiscal situation, projections and constraints, sees the meeting as potentially pointing towards some broad agreement on longer-term objectives and conceivably also on some priorities for the 2007 Budget.

But the real potential of today’s event lies not in any immediate, even Budget, influence on cabinet decisions but in whether it can trigger a process that might over time develop a wider, and influential, business consensus.

If today’s 70 CEOs go away with the germ of belief that a business consensus can be built which might significantly contribute to a broader consensus that includes ambitious long-range business-friendly goals and consonant government policies, it will not be just one more pointless talkfest.

But that will require the CEOs to follow through with some hard slog. Making consensus is tedious and frustrating. It is a lot easier to complain of lack of a “vision” than to build a realistic and achievable one, especially together with the people you are complaining about.

* This is the last of the Business Herald columns.