15 December 2014

Last week, my partner Jenny and I took part in our third Connecting Policy and Practice session at the Institute for Government. We were focused on refining our initial ideas into a concrete set of activities to take us through the next six months, and had the opportunity to ‘pitch’ to a challenge panel comprising of a senior civil servant, Big Lottery committee member and a journalist.

We are interested in language and how it can cause a disconnect between policy, services and young people. We’re looking at what is said, how it is said and what thought has gone into those choices (for more on this see my previous blog).

During the workshop, Katie Thorpe, Learning and Development Consultant at IfG, led us in a session on communicating our messages. We explored story-telling and how effective this can be in making your key points understandable, memorable and inspiring. While we did this in preparation for our upcoming panel presentation, it struck me that rehearsing how to “tell your story” is something many of the people I have worked with over the years have learnt to do. So much of accessing public services can depend on your ability to explain exactly what your need is, or what support you require and why. The same is true of getting ready to enter the world of work, where another story must be developed that gets across exactly why you are now the right person in the right place at the right time. And of course, the language you use plays a significant part in the outcomes of each.

And then came our chance to share our ideas with the panel.

We talked through our thinking to date and the key voices we hoped to hear – young people, practitioners, and public sector leaders, all of whom have different perspectives on the importance of language and what it represents.

Jenny reflected on a recent visit to meet some young people on Talent Match Merseyside. When asked about whether language was important, they said yes, but then they gave examples of positive experiences where they had been able to make decisions about the service on offer. To me this reinforced the importance of the approach you take in designing services, and the crucial role that language plays in enabling people to communicate their own choices.

I talked about the most recent baseline evaluation data from Talent Match London which asked participants whether they are single parents or have disabilities. Although many services would pre-define these characteristics as barriers, we’ve found that when we ask young people to describe their biggest barrier in finding and keeping work they don’t talk about these things, but instead listed the same factors as their peers – a lack of work experience, a lack of understanding about what transferable skills they have, and a lack of confidence. By using terms like ‘barrier’ about problems that we perceive, perhaps we are building this disconnect ourselves?

The panel were really interested in our topic, and we got some good support, and challenge, from them and our colleagues on the programme. They echoed our thinking about the significant impact that professionals’ choice of language can have on individuals, particularly in how language can support policy in positively moving people from one place to another. We talked about how our risk averse culture of public service can run counter to this and lead us to describe what we do in a distant and standardised way, which can hamper those personal connections.

Our work is still in development, but we are thinking of producing:

  • Some “top tips” for policymakers and practitioners (the best stories in this context being short, easy to digest and relevant to the reader). The panel liked this idea, but asked how we could keep such a guide fresh because language is always evolving. The answer is probably not to create a list of ‘banned words’, but to focus the “top tips” on reminding people that language matters, and nudging them to think carefully and test their approaches.
  • An audio blog on the impact that policy and service speak has on young people (a tangible way to hear young people’s voices and understand the impact language and approach has on individuals).
  • A joint-training course for policymakers and practitioners on the impact of being mindful around language use (a practical way to translate what we have learnt into practice through our learning and that of those we’re working with on the programme and beyond).

We’ll be talking to young people and to policymakers and other experts about how they use language over the next few months. If you’re interested in contributing, please get in touch.

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