Archive for July 22, 2010

Making Maths Sexy

July 22, 2010

Like most of the rest of the public sector, we are having to make some pretty hefty cuts in the short, medium and long term futures.  Some, such as Councillors giving up sandwiches at meetings, are small but make a big difference (apparently the money saved will keep free swimming lessons in the borough going for at least the next three months).  Others are going to be much bigger, with no tangible positive benefits that would excite anyone with less than an unhealthy obsession with balance sheets.

Thanks in no small part to the drive towards Big Society we are required to involve local people in deciding which cuts should be made, which in and of itself makes sense.  I’m not going into the merits of involving unqualified and un-knowledgeable random people off the street when it comes to some making some technical and difficult decisions based on complex data, that’s for another day.

What I am going to address is something I was told in a meeting last week – we have to make it sexy.  We can’t make any of it sound boring, otherwise people won’t engage, so let’s break out the Sky News big book of superlatives and start making fiscal discussions more interesting than Big Brother.  For those of you who find Big Brother interesting, swap that with test cricket – I’ve yet to find someone who finds both of these things compulsive viewing.

Where do we start with this?!  Taking a workshop entitled “Partnership principles in the changing context” and making that not only into something that people will understand but would be interested in is next to impossible.  It also needs to reflect what is really being discussed, so my personal preference of “what’s going on?” was dismissed as summarily as football managers in Spain; apparently it’s about more than that.

I agree that we shouldn’t just aim for the lowest common denominator for the major thrust of our involvement activities, these are complicated issues and to make an informed decision you need to be, well, informed.  It’s not good enough just picking a random service that you know nothing about and saying get rid of it, you might as well draw lots for that.  I can see a Local Authority tombola being set up right now…

Equally I get seriously frustrated when people think informing people equals giving them loads of data and statistics.  Just because I show a room full of residents a handful of charts, some budget projections and a RAG report does not necessarily give them the information they need in order to feel informed.

They also need to understand limitations and have their expectations managed.  It’s no good making people feel fully in control of which services are going to be cut if they are not in fact in control.  This is seriously disempowering, and causes real long-term harm to trust and future engagement activities.

I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this, but I guess neither is anyone else.  Some people will find this whole process interesting and will get on board no matter how badly it’s dressed up, others wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole no matter what incentives were offered.  We want people to be informed, engaged and ready to make decisions, especially when it’s about a hard to grasp subject with big consequences.  However, we don’t want them so engaged that should we not take their advice they don’t get too upset and do something about it that makes our lives difficult.

I’d say something about wanting to have our cake and eat it too, but that’s not a phrase I understand.  Who buys a cake with no intention of eating it…