Many workplaces are as infested with politics as Westminster itself. Back in the optimistic days of my first graduate job, I remember everyone being summoned for the announcement of an exciting new global strategy that would double our sales in six years. It sounded great, but once it was over, the words “deckchairs” and “redundancies” were whispered around the room. Old hands told us bemused young pups they had seen it all before – it could be safely ignored. Then all conspired to pay lip service to the strategy in every presentation and conversation.
If you want people to believe in change, including the many cynics, whether at work or in politics, you have to position it really well. Take a look at the extract from Prime Minister David Cameron’s latest speech on public service reform.
“I believe previous Conservative Governments had some really good ideas about introducing choice and competition to health and education – so people were in the driving seat. But there was insufficient respect for the ethos of public services – and public service. The impression was given that there was a clear dividing line running through our economy with the wealth creators of the private sector on one side paying for the wealth consumers of the public sector on the other.
This analysis was – and still is – much too simplistic. Public sector employees don’t just provide a great public service – they contribute directly to wealth creation. It’s not just that, for instance, teachers nurture the human capital that fuels enterprise or that nurses help keep the nation healthy and working. Parts of the public sector help generate innovation and wealth more directly like our teaching hospitals and universities which, can be one of the great wealth creating engines of the 21st century, knowledge based economy. All this must be recognised.
In many ways, under the last Government, the problem was the opposite. There was tremendous respect for the ethos of public services, but not enough emphasis on opening them up. For sure, Tony Blair introduced academies and increased independent provision in the NHS. But he did so while maintaining a whole architecture of bureaucracy and targets and significantly understating the valuable role of charities and the voluntary sector. What’s more, when he did to try to be bolder he got blocked by – and too often surrendered to – vested interests. Foundation hospitals could only go ahead with endless restrictions on what they could do. School reform could only go at a pace that the trade unions – and Gordon Brown –could tolerate. Reading his intriguing memoir over the summer, I was struck by how many times he himself admits that opportunities were lost and Labour should have ‘pushed further and faster on reform’.
I think the lessons from the past are clear. The right were guilty of focusing too much on markets. The left were guilty of focusing too much on the state. Both forgot that space in between – society. And having watched, absorbed and learned from all this, I believe this coalition has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our public services.”
Three simple lessons for us all:
1. He positions himself as fairminded, admitting that his party got things wrong: “some really good ideas…but there was insufficient respect for the ethos of public services”. Admit fallibility. This is vital to establish credibility and earn the right to be heard.
2. He positions his approach as the middle way, between two old flawed approaches, learning the lessons of both. The human brain, given three options, craves the middle one. Once options 1 and 2 have been discredited, it must be 3. It feels right. Show what your plan isn’t, to make clear what it is.
3. He tells a story. “Having watched, observed and learned from all this” he says, like a narrator, drawing out the moral as if he had never set foot in Parliament in his life. The two estranged brothers, State and Market, had a duel, the kingdom was thrown into misery, but prince Cameron showed them the error of their ways and we all lived happily ever after. The plot may be less fabulous than my caricature, but the pattern is familiar. Tell a story. Stories make sense to us and we remember them readily.