On November 17 2020 I took part in the GovComms Festival, a global dialogue about the future of Govenrment sector communications, and part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Government After Shock programme. My presentation notes are below.
Tēnā koutou katoa
I’m here today to offer a provocation, which is based on three observations that have arisen from my experience working with the government sector over more than twenty years:
- first, that people involved in government communications are doing it fundamentally because they want to do good in the world
- second, that the system of government often makes it really difficult to do things the way you want to do them;
- And third, that we are all more powerful than we think; and we each hold the ability to be leaders in our world, and to contribute to a power shift, if we set our minds to do so.
So my provocation is this: in a world where inequalities are increasing and deepening, day by day, is it possible that our Government communications are increasing – rather than reducing – inequality? And if so, what can we do about it?
Troubles don’t travel alone
Government communications – especially those with behaviour change goals – often set out to try to address the individual aspects of harm. Eat healthier, smoke less, stay at school, drink less, be happier, be better parents.
There are many problems with this, if we are thinking about reducing inequalities, and the first is that troubles don’t travel alone. The burden of harm often falls on individuals and communities that are suffering multiple stresses.
If we just take an ethnicity lens on this for a moment. In New Zealand, Māori are significantly over represented in harm and disease statistics; far more likely to be victims of crime, far less likely to participate in higher education, far more likely to be incarcerated, have lower life expectancy, higher incidences of disease, lower incomes, lower education levels.
I hesitate to paint this picture because it is so far short of a full picture – it ignores the many achievements of Māori in all aspects of life, and even presenting it can, in itself, contribute to negative stereotyping which causes harm. But the statistics remain, and although they must be used with care, we cannot ignore the real life implications for the individual people the statistics represent.
Patterns of harm like this tell us that inequality does not come about because of individual failure or weakness. It’s the cumulative effect of colonisation, and layer upon layer of systemic racism, compounded over generations.
Therefore any programme targeting individuals is flawed in its very conceptualisation; if the problem is not individual; how can the solution be?
Taking this individual approach also reinforces the message that these big systemic problems are merely a matter of individual responsibility. This perspective can be politically useful: Making problems individual absolves Government of any role in solving them, or acting on the system changes that are needed. But it’s not practically useful. Without system change, we won’t reduce inequality.
And it’s also harmful. Presenting systemic problems as individual failure shifts the blame, further stigmatising affected populations. Isoa Kavakimotu illustrated this powerfully in his response to Opposition Leader Judith Collins’ claim that obese people needed to take responsibility for “personal choices”.
Increasing toxic stress
Through programmes that target individuals when the problem is systemic, we risk adding to stress levels in communities that are already under significant stress.
We’ve already seen that many people we want to reach with our programmes are likely to be experiencing multiple stresses. They might be living in crowded housing, or moving house frequently; and/or experiencing substance abuse and/or experiencing mental or physical ill health, and/or living with violence, and/or suffering loss or grief, and/or feeling hopeless about job loss or inability to connect with work or learning.
Such extreme levels of stress experienced over prolonged periods is described as “toxic”, for the chemical effects it has on our bodies and brains. Research from the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child shows that this chemical effect impairs our decision-making capability and reduces our “executive function”, meaning people’s ability to respond to new information is reduced.
This means that interventions that are designed – with the best will in the world – to inform people of harm or opportunities to avoid harm; or by asking them to change their behavior may in fact be adding to stress that is already at toxic levels.
We may be doing more harm than good.
Normalising and stigmatising
Another implication of targeting interventions to overwhelmed populations is the risk of increasing the sense of social norm around risk behaviours. And even if we’re very careful with our imagery; even if we are creating powerful and award-winning creatve executions, we have to ask ourselves, what is the cumulative effect of these depictions?
For the population we are targeting, and the individuals within it, what is the story we are telling?
As a minimum, our risk with such depictions is that we create a belief that x behaviour is normal or expected in my community – and that therefore x behavior is expected of me.
Or worse, we risk further stigmatising vulnerable populations, creating a sense of isolation, deepening community stereotypes, entrenching self-stigma, and removing from the possibility of help or change.
So what does this mean for government communicators?
A moral obligation to collaborate
First, we have to stop acting as though the problem we are setting out to solve is the only problem our communities and the people within them are facing – or that we are the only Government agency trying to reach people on important life issues. In fact, individuals and communities are being targeted by multiple government programmes at once, with the cumulative effect that we are asking already-stressed people to be perfect citizens.
To change this we have to completely rethink how Government works and – rather than treating issues as isolated and individual – take a system view, collaborating across government on the solution.
If the problems themselves do not arise from a single source; so the solutions should not arise from a single source either. This is what UK think tank Demos has called the public sector’s “moral obligation” to collaborate.
Collaboration has been an unresolved question for Government sector communication and marketing practice for decades. It’s an area where intention and action have been slow to connect, as the time needed to collaborate generally works against the sometimes urgent (and perhaps artificial) deadlines for many programmes.
But it’s time to be serious about this.
And crucially, we have to stop imagining that we can be the creators of the solution.
In fact – even more than not imagining we are the creators of the solution, we have to stop imagining that we even know what the problem is.
To quote the Southern Initiative, which is setting out to transform South Auckland, Only the Hood can change the Hood. This means we have to enable communities to be the owners of their own solutions. With this way of thinking we change from being programme leaders or creators, to community supporters or enablers.
Communities can tell us what their priority problems are; and they have the power to work together to identify solutions that are more powerful than Government can achieve on its own.
Of course, there are some compelling reasons why we don’t do this as much as we could or should.
Engaging with communities can be tough. You have to share, and be prepared to be challenged. You have to be prepared to change your plan. Communities don’t always want to be engaged, they don’t always know how to engage, they don’t always stay in the engagement, they don’t always engage consistently. You lose control. It costs more, it takes longer, it’s riskier.
But we have to start. And if we really want to ensure our programmes reduce rather than increase inequalities, we have to do more.
Your role as leaders within the system
The actions required for collaboration and community engagement are simple enough: engage early; allow time; resource people to engage, and so on. But they are not easy to do. The system of Government often mitigates against this sort of approach. So the power shift is going to have to happen at a personal level: with each of you. And so – at the risk of contributing to your toxic stress levels – here is my challenge to you:
The first and most important factor is to set the intention to engage. Make this concept the heart of your approach and your driving factor for decision making, and come back to it again and again.
This means you’ll need to lead. Wherever you are in the organisation, however junior or however senior you are, you can lead, and you will need to lead, to make this happen. This means being prepared to challenge others, and sometimes be prepared to fight for your approach.
And thirdly, slow the game down. Understand that you need to invest time to realise the dividends of effectiveness, and use your leadershiip to continuously make that space available for your programme.
This won’t be easy. But this year the response by the NZ Government multi-disciplinary communications team to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we are capable of many things we never thought possible before.
Right now – when so much has changed; and we are rethinking what our future might look like – we have the opportunity to embed good practice more consistently, and create new approaches that put communities and citizens at the centre.
It’s in your hands.
Indicators of Inequality for Māori and Pacific People, Lisa Marriott and Dalice Sim, VUW