209: Talking the language of government
Engaging with government can be confusing. It is not always clear what ministers want or how they intend to achieve it. So public affairs needs to help understand the language of government and unpick its true meaning.
If we are lucky, government will set out a clear policy objective but much of the time they are describing a more general direction of travel. It is then up to you to consider potential measures to help them achieve the aims or to campaign against them. Take some recent examples ‘improve productivity’ or ‘deal with the skills gap’. Government starts from the position of principles and then looks to fill in the blanks.
That can be really useful if you are full of ideas and have some strong policy positions but that assumes that the ‘principle’ is clear. In many instances, this is not the case. The language used may not be entirely clear or even worse, potentially confusing. So what to do?
To get clarity requires a number of actions to be taken. In the first place, there is no better option than direct engagement. That need not be with ministers but could be with advisers or officials. The insight they provide will help to unpick the story behind the principles. That could include more on the initial motivation, the personal commitment or the historical backdrop.
It is always essential to do some background digging on the issue. Issues are rarely new and will doubtless have been considered before. So what was said before? What arguments were put forward and by who?
All this is useful in deciding on a response.
Ministers in different departments can sometimes use the same language but actually want different things. They may be saying the same thing but are actually talking at cross-purposes. In many instances, it is unclear whether parts of government are even engaging with each other. It is always safest to assume that they are not. It may even be that relations between officials are better than they are between ministers.
So the same process of ‘unpicking’ is needed if more than one government department is involved.
Ministerial language can also disguise possible outcomes. So whilst, for instance, when talking recently about how social media companies behave, how they should treat their customers and the immediate action they need to take. Ministers failed to mention that a ‘social media company levy’ remains in their thinking. In this case, the language obscures the potential outcomes but you would only know this through the contact.
Concepts of responsibility can often be vague and undefined, especially if you are an organisation used to dealing with other governments or are based abroad. A favourite of government is the ‘voluntary code’. When advocating for such an approach government could be trying to cover up for the lack of appetite to pass legislation in the area (especially under the current circumstances). But such voluntary codes have to include measures that government find agreeable and solve the issues that they are trying to address. This is a clear example where the language really needs to be understood. If the voluntary code does not reflect what government wants, then it is doomed to failure.
Part of the challenge is to ‘think ahead’ of where government is. This means thinking through potential consequences and implications. That could be called risk analysis which all well-run organisations undertake. It is not always clear that ministers have the same level of forward-thinking.
The flip-side of understanding the language is then being able to communicate with them in a similar way as well, knowing that everyone if talking about the same things, so minimising the prospect of misunderstanding.
Language can both help and hinder but nothing should be taken at face value when dealing with government. Instead, take the time to understand it and your engagement will be more effective.