2 March 2013

Stop taking the pills - Some #CommsCamp13 thoughts (at great length)

I was 'nudged' recently by @Comms2Point0 to post my thoughts on #CommsCamp13, but as so often I found that talking about it was easier than writing it down.

I must apologise to people at work for the talking about it... And thank @danslee and @annkempster again for a very fine event.

But then, in a brilliant post today to mark an exit from government (into what will doubtless be an equally brilliant private sector career) @emercoleman said something which set me off; about public service systems taking the blue pill and those in them who take the red one.

I'm not much given to Matrix geekery. Those who were with me in a fantastic #commscamp13 final session, led by @curiousc, in a challenge to comms folk to see that they can too often be the blockers, will know I'm more of a Doctor Who fan.

(Excitingly, when suggesting that communications people need to become the voice of the customer and drive organisational learning, I actually got to say 'reverse the polarity of the neutron flow' in a public place. Yes, I know;  I'm pathetic.)

But Emer's idea of the 'juncture' at which we work seems spot on;

"... remember the scene when Morpheus offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill everything stays the same – if he takes the red pill (like Alice in Wonderland) he falls through the rabbit hole and sees things like they really are. We are at a juncture in society and technology where the system (and government) keep taking the blue pill..."

I'm finding blue pill dependency to be on the rise.

Behaviours (and for me, as I never seem to stop saying, it's always about the behaviours and not the shiny toys) seem increasingly to seek top down, controlling, non-consultative, 'manage the message', 'manage the media', "only answer if you have to" responses.

Those are the responses learned through so many tired decades of unlearning, disempowering public services, too often easily characterised as having no actual interest in the public being served. Years and years in which it was all about structures and hierarchies and the right to make decisions without challenge and you being bloody grateful for what you were given, and not having choices or complaints taken seriously and blah, blah, blah.

You know, there's a ton of academic research that says that in spite of the perception that the public sector is close to its customers... It just isn't.

And - to return to the task at hand - that all put me in mind of @nickkeane's 'theory' at my first #CommsCamp13 session: 'twitter is now useless', where more than one person expressed an almost sneering belief that, because customers use them to ask for stuff, management of organisations' twitter accounts "should 'just' be handed over to Customer Services".

Nick suggested that tools of engagement have altered customers' approaches to public services; have altered expectations of access and treatment and accountability. Customers expect to engage horizontally - directly with the CEO, ward councillor, or communications team; but they are still met by vertical hierarchies.

I'd reckon that the days when comms teams merely broadcast and didn't listen and respond; when complaints were left to rot at the office being complained about; when the journalist was the most important character in town because they could damage your reputation more than any individual customer; when elected representatives could fail to consult, or ban tweeting or filming in council meetings, and so many other of those old behaviours could be maintained... I'd reckon those days are gone.

And if anyone's still fighting that, I'd reckon it's only a matter of time before the customers change your mind.

They will expect a say in how we design public health responses; to be heard as we agree budgets; and to advise on how our services perform. And the tools will make sure they get it. Letter by letter, call by call, online petition by online petition, and - arguably - most powerfully and crucially, tweet by tweet; they will change the behaviours.

And so they should. When did we ever have the right to ignore complaints, to not answer questions, to fail to learn from customer experience, to meet and make decisions in private (saving the exemptions of the 1972 Local Government Act, natch) or to keep the spending figures away from a public whose services they actually are. When?

I think Nick's right. Emer too. At the risk of being a bit pretentious ("You, Eddie? Really?") the issue seems to be that decades-old, Weberian models of government are no longer fit for purpose. In a world with social media, Open Data and the looming possibility of instant reputation destruction by one aggrieved customer on twitter, the hierarchical responses have to change.

Tragically, the Francis report tells us that much more clearly than I could ever hope to. The not listening has to end. The not learning has to go. The behaviours have to change.

Not broadcasting, but representing and learning.

Not remote from the public, unfilmed and untweeted, but open and learning.

Not Press Releases, but consistent, equal approaches to communicating information which treat all stakeholders equally. Being human. And learning.

I'd reckon it's all customer services now.


Beth Gregson said...

How very refreshing and true, Thank you its give heart to knwo there are people out there who think this way.

As a disability group set up to work with public bodoes and disabled people to change the processes, and work collaborativley..to be seen as enablers, experts, educated, important and that we matter, our opinions matters..and more importantly we can together make better decisions.

Social media is not going away, and more and more its a tool to be used not jsut for information b for action. The voiceless are using thier voice..

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Ann Kempster said...

Really good piece Eddie.

We know digital comms channels/social media are having an effect on how we communicate and how we are communicated to/with. But...I've been musing recently (in my head only at this point) about the effect that all this will have on our organisations. If we are moving towards a flatter communications world, can we go on operating hierarchical organisations? Will they start to change to mirror the change in broader power structures in the wider world? People don't care about The Council, The Government Department, etc, they just want to know what they want to know when they want to know it. Surely this too must have some sort of impact on organisation structure over time? I have no answers t this point. But the question is fascinating me...