Ten thoughts from 10 years in the Public Sector; #2 Spin…

…waste and incompetence are understandable, but the failure to learn is really harming us all. 

MEDIA1-imagesIn his brilliant book Flat Earth News, the author Nick Davies explains that the quality of our press is poor because they don’t have the resources to invest in good journalism; the type of journalism that would lead to informed debate and maybe even progress? Waste, incompetence and the failure to learn thrive in the Public Sector, in-part because the media don’t have the resources to get beneath the issues. The increasing financial pressure that sections of the media are under coupled to the seemingly constant need to produce new News means the only thing journalists have the time to do is regurgitate and polish whatever is served to them in a readily digestible format. Ninety percent of what we are offered as News is no more than sales and PR. This is great for the people and institutions that want (need) to hide in the shadows and bad for the progress of society and humankind.

The claim to fame for the county I live in, over and above its fantastic landscape and the unique sausage that this blog takes its name from, is that it has been home to more public sector bodies and quangos per head of population than any other part of the UK. Locals often joke that the most effective way that all the public money that has been wasted here could have been spent would have been to drop it from helicopters; at least then we might have seen some of it! But in the midst of all of this waste and incompetence, there have been few if any stories in the media that have shone a much needed light onto this situation. Each publicly funded project is hailed as a success, every new initiative is headlined as the great hope that we have all been waiting for and each time these things fail to deliver the benefits that were promised, nothing is ever said about them…but before we lambast the quality of the media coverage we should be clear about who wrote the reports and the headlines in the first place, they were not written by the media, they were written for the media by experienced PR professionals who have mastered the art of managing the media.

Have you ever noticed that no matter how much news there is the newspaper is always the same size?

credit-downloadThe local tourism industry here in the Lake District has “grown” over the years, I recall an occasion when a former tourism chief called a press conference to tell the regional media that this growth was due to them and their efforts…the press lapped it up and it was reported word for word. No-one from the media even thought of asking the question of comparison. If they had they might have realised that the growth rate was actually only half of other comparable places; the area had lost out in the race for tourists but the media helped sell it as a success…not because they were complicit, they were simply ill-equipped to deal with media savvy PR people who know that journalists have column inches to fill and don’t have time to worry about what fills them.

But I’m not overly worried about Public Sector bosses spinning a good story to keep their job, the systems they are in reward them for this so they are going to do it. For me its the lack of learning and the perpetuation of failure that is the real issue. Public Sector systems within which failure cannot be admitted conspire to prevent real learning; if you can’t admit what you did wrong then you can’t learn from it…but should an effective media, one that works in the public interest (?) shine the light on failure and encourage learning to happen. Learning and therefore progress is inhibited and bad practice is perpetuated when failure is not recognised for what it is; the improvement of anything starts with the gathering of knowledge and the sharing of understanding…surely a relevant media working in the public interest could have a role in this?

There is an interesting comparison here with the Private Sector, not that I believe they do things perfectly, but there is a recognition in the Private Sector that you have a duty to learn from what goes wrong…there is no advantage in hiding and perpetuating failure because the market and your shareholders will not reward you for this, dressing up your failures as success will ultimately destroy your own sustainability. Customers won’t continue to pay for rubbish products just because you say they are good, your products and services have to deliver the benefits you’ve promised or you will lose your customers to someone else.

So what can we we expect from the media? The media occupies an increasingly confused space. Under the well documented (not in the press!) financial and performance pressures that the media are under, we can’t realistically expect local papers to risk upsetting large Public Sector employers (advertisers), it is more likely that they will continue to smooth over the issues. However their role is becoming more confused and conflicted in light of the increasingly irreconcilable cracks emerging in the delivery of Public Sector Services and the fractures of trust that accompany these.  Surely in the shadow of the seismic shifts happening to us all, simply continuing to regurgitate PR and print “man bites dog” stories cannot really be in the interests of any of us any longer?

The message to the media is that if you’re not outraged then you probably haven’t been paying attention. Families of patients at Mid-Staffs would doubtless agree.

One comment

  1. Lessons have been learned. They all say it – politicians, government departments, public sector CEOs, Just once, I want to hear someone say “Lessons are being applied!”

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