Don’t mention the debt mountain

In denial the voters simply don’t want to hear about spending cuts or taxes

Have you noticed that almost as soon as this election campaign got underway all talk about the need for painful spending cuts to tackle Britain’s £163.4 billion deficit in the last financial year alone (equivalent to £15,000 for every single person in the UK) suddenly stopped, as though switched off like a light?

The reason was made patently obvious by Ben Page, Chief Executive of the Ipsos Mori polling company, in a lecture at the University of Glamorgan last Thursday. If you were watching the commentary at the end of the Leaders Debate on television the same evening you would have seen him explaining the instant responses of a focus group Ipsos Mori organised. It was made up 36 people pressing buttons on a scale of one to seven (I think it was) scoring their feelings about what Clegg, Brown and Cameron were saying as the debate progressed. The result was the hovering ‘worm’ progressing along the screen with the three yellow, blue and red lines rising and falling as approval ratings changed.

In his lecture, academically entitled Exceeding Public Expectations: Public Services in the Big Society, Ben Page cantered rather breathlessly through some of Ipsos Mori’s headline findings from surveys it has conducted over the past few years. What came through most clearly is that people are completely contradictory in their outlook, and are generally irrational in their approach to public policy.

So, for example, public demands for services rise along with living standards. In one survey that Ipsos Mori conducted for the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) 72 per cent expected the NHS to provide drugs no matter what they cost. In another survey 57 per cent strongly disagreed with cutting spending on the NHS to tackle the debt crisis. As Page put it, “Gordon Brown’s arguments for keeping public spending going in order to prevent Britain falling into a double dip recession has huge traction.”

It’s worse than that, however. Ispos Mori’s surveys show that in general the public goes along with the Taxpayers’ Alliance claims that the deficit can simply be tackled by cutting waste. This is despite all the evidence, for example from the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies, that cutting out waste in Whitehall only nibbles at the edges of the debt mountain.

As Ben Page put it, “The public are in denial about the fiscal deficit. They regard frontline services as sacrosanct and don’t like taxes. They really seem to believe that we can make pain-free savings.”

The political parties will have carried out their own focus group work immediately ahead of the election and picked up the same messages. This is why, so long as this campaign lasts, you will not hear any of them talking about spending cuts or belt tightening.  So, for example, Alistair Darling’s warning a few short weeks ago that we will have to make bigger cuts than ever contemplated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s has been put on hold – until 7 May at any rate.

Ben Page had some interesting advice for public sector managers, whether in the Welsh Government, local government or the health service, about how to cope with the cuts when they finally start to bite. “Build an emotional connection with the people you serve,” he advised. “This means devoting a lot of thought, effort and some money to communicating with the public. All our surveys have told us that the calibre of an organisation’s communications have a major impact on approval ratings.”

What this means in practical terms is not rocket science but putting in place some straightforward actions with the accent on doing them well and keeping them simple. So, for a local authority for instance, effective media management includes:

  • Delivering an annual simple-to-follow A-Z guide of council services.
  • Publishing a regular council magazine or newspaper to every household.
  • Effective and consistent linkage of the council’s branding to service provision.
  • Good internal communications with staff delivering services.

    “Whether you’re an NHS Board or a local authority you should think hard about ensuring that your own staff are powerful advocates rather than critics of the services you deliver,” Ben Page concluded. All too often people working in the public services could be heard being the worst critics of what they were doing. “The human voice of your own people is the most important part of communicating your message,” he intoned.  To ensure your staff were onside public sector managers needed to monitor and praise performance, and trust people to perform and make autonomous decisions.

    Perhaps Page’s most counter-intuitive message was that in all his polling data amongst public sector organisations there was very little correlation between performance and pay. Instead it was the soft, relatively cost-free management techniques such as praise and trust that worked best. This was one encouraging note, at least, as the spending curb avalanche approaches.

    John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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