Lost for Words: The Language of Local Government
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Bertrand Russell once espoused the benefits of clear thinking – removing extraneous factors and unconscious bias to make better decisions. The contemporary buzz-term for this seems to be ‘mindfulness’, which has virally permeated pop-literature on everything from diet and exercise to work-based habits.
But a precursor to clear thinking is clear language. I don’t mean Plain English or eliminating jargon – there’s a place for jargon in any industry that uses a common technical language. What’s important is to be aware of when we’re using jargon and to be consistent in its application.
There is smattering of words in the current narrative of local government that resist this consistency. They are sprinkled, as my friend Hamish Davidson would say, through the literature like pixie dust that will cure all ills, but used and interpreted so varyingly, that it’s a wonder they carry any common meaning at all. And if words don’t denote common meaning, what exactly are they for?
Here are a few of the most common offenders:
I once interviewed candidates for a senior technology role and was amazed (and, on the whole, impressed) by the diversity of answers to the question, “what is digital?”. One candidate told us simply, “it’s either on or it’s off”. This was clearly tongue-in-cheek but was possibly the most technically accurate definition we received. Other candidates were less binary, telling us “it’s about services that start with the user” or “it’s a service that anticipates customer needs,” both of which are laudable qualities but not intrinsically digital – they’re just good service design. Colleagues in Adults or Children’s Services would think these definitions had been hijacked from commissioning. Curiously, technology was often the last thing candidates mentioned when describing a digital organisation. When I interview candidates now for any role, I always start by asking them to explain the job title. It isn’t the trick question it might seem – I’m genuinely keen to hear the myriad of interpretations that inevitably come and it’s a good test of the breadth of a candidate’s thinking on the subject.
We used to use the word efficiencies to mean ‘being more efficient’. A consequence of being more efficient is often, but not necessarily, the release of savings. But in short order the word became a thinly veiled euphemism, employed as a palatable alternative to ‘restructure’ or ‘redundancies’. At some point it became synonymous with savings of any kind and now it is too often used to mean ‘cuts’, whether or not there is anything more efficient about them. At this stage in austerity, local authorities are experts at making savings. They know every flavour they come in and which ones taste most bitter. They know their restructures from their supplier negotiations and their property rationalisations from their demand management. Despite this, we still see a lot of instances of ‘general efficiencies’ in council medium term financial plans. Rarely do these placeholders eventually result in savings from true efficiencies – usually, at year end, there will be an underspend here or a vacancy there that will make up the shortfall. It’s time to be honest about this and mark those line items as ‘unidentified but manageable’. After everything it’s done for us, let’s not rob the word ‘efficiencies’ of its meaning.
Similarly, I was struck when a colleague once asked that we not call a particular project a transformation initiative, because “staff know this means redundancies”. I’ll admit this caught me off guard. Transformation has, to me, always meant a change from one state to another. I separate it from improvement because it’s more than incremental change – it’s fundamental change. The result of this might be savings – savings may even be the driver – but they’re not one and the same. Of course, interpretations vary wildly and there was widespread debate last year following a roundtable event on the subject over whether transformation is at the core of what local authorities are now about or merely a vacuous buzzword.
Of all the words that permeate the modern narrative of local government, the most widely misunderstood must surely be commercial. In the latest LGC special report on commercialisation, one council Chief Executive says that “what we’re actually talking about is income generation”. For others, it will mean looking closely at commissioning and contracting to maximise value from the supply base. Both are part of the picture, but I would strongly encourage local government, and the wider public sector, to embrace a much broader definition. Not so broad it becomes meaningless but something that will allow organisations to embrace the full spectrum of benefits that can come from blending a commercially minded approach with a public service ethos.
As a former Commercial Director for an upper-tier authority, I was part of a community of people nationally who have a job title, but not much else, in common. Some in this role will be their organisation’s lead for procurement and contract management, others will head up the traded services team and others still may have a remit focused on commercial finance or property investment. I was fortunate last year to help recruit to Bristol City Council’s Director of Commercialisation post, a role which, above all, was charged with developing a more entrepreneurial mindset across the organisation. It was about culture change, as much as anything.
The Public Accounts Committee has noted that “new ventures may require specialist skills and experience that have not been needed by officers in the past” and most recruitment firms I speak to say that, while the demand for commercial skills shows no sign of diminishing, public bodies struggle to attract the skills they need. I wonder how much of this is due to an inability to define what they really need?
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