Fighting the negative through engagement

Public services and governments are coming under pressure from a growing number of movements which in many ways owe a debt to the politics of anarchy.

Luke Blair: Irresponsible claims must be challenged
Luke Blair: Irresponsible claims must be challenged

Outcries over A&E figures, marches against austerity cuts, protests against changes to police, fire, council and NHS services, all represent widespread dissatisfaction with government and its public representatives at local, regional and national levels.

Compared with the latest scenes from Egypt and Greece, it seems a bit of a stretch to say our more restrained protests are anywhere close to anarchy.  But there is a kind of nihilism at their heart.

The familiar issue for public sector communicators running consultations, whether relating to hospital changes, fire station closures, police front counters, bin collections or parking, is that
consultees are happy to shout out in their thousands about what they don’t want.

But when it comes to suggesting viable alternatives, the silence is just as deafening. The enthusiasm is for the negative, rather than anything more constructive.

In a consultation the NHS ran last year across NW London, there were a record 17,000 responses to questions about proposed changes to nine A&E units.

In only one case, namely Hammersmith & Fulham Council, did any one of those responses actually propose a constructive alternative.

 As a result, plans for a new type of hospital in that borough are now progressing.

In the meantime, campaigners have taken the programme to the High Court, just as they have similar plans across the capital regarding Lewisham and other hospitals in south east London.

The High Court is not known for its ability to plan and implement healthcare solutions, but it will satisfy those who just want to stop everything.

Protesters, placard-wavers, angry ‘pro-democrats’ and general government-bashers see the courts, public consultations and demonstrations as a legitimate way of calling a halt to something they don’t like.

But democracy is not just about listening to the loudest shout. If that were the case, we would have re-introduced capital punishment some time ago.

Similarly, one might say Egypt is painfully discovering that democracy is about more than having a popular government. It is also about rules, laws and personal responsibility.

The problem comes, especially for those who are the spokespeople for our public services, when others fail to take on that responsibility, act irresponsibly, say ‘no’ to everything and behave like a bunch of anarchists.

Take A&E figures as an example. For months now, we have been told by the media and campaigners that A&E units in hospitals up and down the country are ‘in crisis’ (The Guardian). 

The critical four-hour waiting target is being missed and hospitals are ‘stretched to breaking point’ (ITN), while patients are being ‘put at risk’ (The Telegraph).

Interestingly, one MP has even used the language of anarchy, saying: ‘People are manning the barricades.'

But what do the figures actually show? Funnily enough they show that from April through to June this year, there was a steadily improving picture. 

The number of A&Es meeting the four-hour target never dipped below 91 per cent and in fact has been at over 96 per cent, consistently, since May.

This classic gap between perception and reality – which communicators wrestle with every day – might not seem so important, and it might seem stretching the point to link this with a breakdown in society.

And yet properly engaging with ‘society’ – for example through social media – and reining in some of the more melodramatic hyperboles, toning down the language of the barricades, is exactly what needs to happen if these kinds of constant, forced misinterpretations are to be confronted.

Unless the media and public service campaigners are challenged about their irresponsible claims, society might actually start believing it is genuinely in crisis. 

That will make improvements to services well-nigh impossible to deliver. Hospitals will not be able to take advantage of new developments in medicine and in managing care, because no-one will be allowed to change them.

Other services like the police, fire brigade and schools will become gradually more and more stuck in a kind of super-unionised groundhog day, where no improvement can ever be implemented because it is simply too difficult to change anything.

At that point, everything will stop, services no longer develop and improve, and we might as well go home, take the Egyptian approach, and let the military run everything.


Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency.

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