As kids we all will have felt the pain of being left out of a conversation because we weren’t up to speed on the latest TV programme or whatever. Almost half a century on, I still vividly remember when, for a period, cars became the main talking point in the school playground. My family didn’t have a car, and, consequently my knowledge of them stretched to them having four wheels and an engine. How isolated I felt when talk moved on to carburettors and clutches – so isolated that I suddenly decided to start making up sentences and using these words just so that I could feel that I was keeping up with my mates. I may have been, and probably was, talking complete nonsense, but at least I felt good.

Little did I know then, of course, that using big words to make meaningless sentences was just some great early training to cope with a working life in business. Management consultants are serial offenders, so there is a very large dollop of ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ in what I’m about to say, but I do worry that one of the reasons that some of the great stuff that local authorities are doing doesn’t get the public recognition that it deserves is because few people outside of local government can fully understand what they are talking about.

Yesterday I drove past my local ‘streetscene’ depot. I saw an advertisement for a ‘Director of Place’. I could guess what these important cogs in the Council wheel contribute to my well being as a resident, but I’m the only person in my household who could.

For a talk I did at a local authority’s management conference recently I put together a slide with what I believe to be the three most overused words in local government today. For what it’s worth, my votes went to ‘partnership’, ‘transformation’ and, in first place, ‘commissioning’. All three, but particularly the latter two, are used so much, often with widely different interpretations of what people think they mean, that they are in danger of actually becoming meaningless.

As someone of a certain age, I can remember when only bands of the magnitude of the Beatles and the Stones were given the moniker ‘superstar’. Then, gradually, the excitable, ratings hungry Radio 1 DJs started calling any one hit wonder a ‘superstar’, so real superstars had to be ‘megastars’. Fast forward to today’s business world and no-one has ‘conferences’ any more. They just aren’t exciting enough in these austere times to get people to part with their cash to attend, so we are now invited to ‘summits’. Once the preserve of world leaders, they’re now available on buy one get one free to mere mortals like you and I. Transformation isn’t just a more important sounding alternative to ‘change’. If we have transformation programmes where we once had change programmes, then the truly transformational, which authorities should be shouting from the rooftops about, will just get lost.

The reasons that commissioning will go the same way are slightly different, but the effect will be the same. If different people in the same authority each believe that ‘commissioning’ means something different, then it actually means nothing. I reviewed a draft report prepared in one authority a few weeks ago, which contained sections drafted by a number of people. In some parts of the report ‘commission’ meant what I think it means (identifying and securing the best way of meeting a defined set of needs). In others it clearly meant ‘procure’. In others it clearly meant ‘outsource’. Not surprisingly, when read as a single end to end report it was mightily confusing.  

Sometimes, of course, obfuscation can be a deliberate tactic, and a very effective one, too. Usually, though, this is when organisations want to stop something happening (think Yes, Minister). Local authorities, if they do want to commission effectively, to transform services and to work in partnership with their communities (sorry, couldn’t resist) need to make sure that they are speaking a common language….but one that doesn’t need us all to behave like I did in that playground all those years ago.  


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Thoughts, reflections and ruminations from the BDOlocalgov team. We don't always agree with each other. We'd love to hear what you think.


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