Now we are into the post-referendum panic phase here in England, with our two largest political parties in leadership meltdown, thoughts are just beginning to turn to the negotiations with the EU which will be needed to thrash out the terms of the UK’s departure.
There will be other key negotiations as well; for instance, in terms of the many bi-lateral trade discussions that will need to take place presumably with the USA, China, Australia, and all the other major trading partners. But the EU sessions will no doubt be the toughest, as well as the most critical to the future prosperity of the UK – and indeed of the whole continent. A rotten deal for the UK is likely to also be a rotten deal for Europe – tariff barriers in one direction for instance are likely to be replicated back the other way, to no-one’s benefit. You tax our Jaguars; we’ll tax your Volkswagens.
One immediate problem for the UK that has already been identified is a resource and skills gap. It is many years since the UK civil service (government employees) have had to take part in trade negotiations, as pretty much everything has been handled at European level. Similarly, our politicians have simply never had to face anything as challenging as they now will over the next couple of years. So the fact is that the civil service probably just does not have enough people to execute all the work that will be needed in the next period, and it certainly does not have people with the skills required.
The temptation is to assume that bright people who maybe have worked in the Foreign Office, the Department of Business or the Treasury (the finance ministry) will be able to handle the negotiations. But 30 years in procurement has taught us that negotiation is a set of skills that can – and needs to be – learnt. Yes, some people are more natural and comfortable as negotiators than others, although often when people say “she’s a good negotiator” what they actually mean is “she’s a good trader” – they are talking about bartering in effect, the old-fashioned I win : you lose type transaction.
But if we are talking about what the classic book Getting to Yes and the Harvard Negotiation Project call principled negotiation, this requires a little natural aptitude and a lot of training and real experience (or credible practice at the least).
So it is essential that the UK thinks quickly about how the country can make sure it has a team of negotiators who are not just good diligent civil servants, or successful politicians, or smart Oxford PPE graduates, but genuinely expert, skilled negotiators. The same applies to the other parties of course – the best negotiations in terms of outcomes for all parties come when every one involved knows what they are doing.
The other temptation will be for the UK to reach for the consulting firms’ directory. “McKinsey? We need 50 of your best and brightest for the next 2 years”. We suspect a certain amount of this will inevitably happen, and in terms of some of the work that will be necessary, it is not necessarily a bad idea. But please, anyone reading this in government, don’t assume that just because you are paying £3,000 a day for an individual consultant that they must be a brilliant negotiator.
What we would like to see is a rapid exercise to identify an appropriate set of training processes that can be put in place, so that civil servants, politicians and consultants (if necessary) go through an agreed expert programme. This should not only focus on the skills needed, but it could also start fleshing out the issues that need to be on the table, the BATNAs for various different areas, the concessions that can be offered and the absolute “must-haves”. So linking the development of a negotiation strategy to the training of the people involved would be the sensible route.
So I would quickly look at who can best help to put this in place – and no, I’m not personally looking for a job here. There are organisations that have serious, deep expertise in negotiation skills development. The Gap Partnership is one that comes immediately to mind, as well as Harvard project (or their consulting partners). And note this needs to go way above the basic courses that are offered by all sorts of consultants, institutes and other firms.
The UK needs to field the best possible negotiation team. That is not a bunch of willing but inexperienced civil servants and over-confident politicians (we suspect every politician thinks they are naturally brilliant negotiators; we guarantee that they’re not). This is no time for amateurs.