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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The toxic brand of Government

We (the royal; professional) have just started holding formal evidence-gathering sessions for an inquiry into the Redesign of Public Services. It sounds rather grand, but essentially we just sit next to some very eminent individuals with far more experience than us, and listen-in on fascinating conversations about how design processes and practices could be brought to bear upon the policymaking process and the delivery of public services (at some point in the future, @JocelynABailey will have to write it all up into coherent argument, including recommendations to Government – just to silence critics that perceive my job to involve a lot of talking and whispering ‘mmm interesting through narrowed eyes).

I’m not going to use this blog to explain or sell our inquiry or its premise to you. If you’re so inclined you can have a gander at our work here. However, there is one strand of the work that I find particularly interesting, so thought I’d share my thoughts with those who gave a damn.

With so many design industry bods involved in the process, it’s no surprise that talk of ‘brand’ is quite prevalent. Design, when spoken of in these terms, and in relation to the public sector, too easily conjures images of very expensive refurbs of Government departments, or Siobhan Sharpe (holy faak). Of course, on one level, we’re talking about logos and fonts, but on a much deeper and more significant level, a discussion of brand is the inevitable result of refocusing ideas about policy development away from the institutions of governance – local authorities, government departments, quangos – to the end-user or receiver of the policy mechanism or service: the citizen. It’s worth saying that the inquiry process began with extended discussions on how we should ‘brand’ the individual service user across the work stream. We chose ‘citizen’, because it holds connotations with democratic accountability, and most importantly places the end-user within his or her local democratic context. This isn’t simply a consumer who has exercised informed choice and decided to fly Virgin Atlantic; their relationship to choice, payment and accountability is very different: they pay taxes and vote.

Within the commercial world, we talk of strong or weak brands, brand ‘buy-in’, and often how a brand permeates cultural consciousness (for better or worse). My overriding impression from the opening weeks of our inquiry has been that it is astounding just how contaminated the brands of ‘Government’ or ‘Public sector’ have become within UK cultural consciousness. I’m not simply talking about the general dislike for politicians, or the widespread discontent resulting from massive budget cuts. This is visceral negativity, cynicism, and distrust associated with the experience of engaging with the public sector, or following a service from start to finish that has been designed and implemented by Government (or via one of its outsourced providers). Just listen to my colleague after a phonecall to HM Revenue and Customs, or my mother trying to book a GP appointment, or read my tweets after a 90 minute trip to the Brent Parking Shop.

An more subtle example: as part of part of a Social Design Talks series we have co-organised with the V&A and the Young Foundation, we examined a new Time Banking project called ‘Care4Care’. Time Banking is a way of encouraging greater civic engagement and volunteering through a kind of monetisation of time. If you provide non-medical care to an elderly person in your community, you are able to bank your hours in a central nationwide database to go towards your own ‘Care Pension’. This can then be redeemed when you need it, or transferred to a family member. Care4Care is, of course, a way of rethinking the problem of elderly care that removes the state completely. That doesn’t mean that professional care, when needed, shouldn’t be provided by the NHS; it simply suggests that before such dramatic interventions are necessary, there might be supporting mechanisms within the community that could step in.

Those on the left might find this problematic. Are you submitting to Adam Smith economics if you recognise that waiting around for altruistic civic engagement isn’t particularly useful, and that you have to make it worth citizens’ while to give up their time to visit an elderly neighbour, do their shopping, help them with the ironing? It’s remarkable that Care4Care doesn’t even seek to answer these questions. They identified a potential solution to a number of social and budgetary problems, a solution that focused on the needs and behaviours of citizens. They aren’t trying to attract volunteers away from schemes were they don’t benefit directly; they are much keener to draw in existing, non-incentive volunteering activity. Frankly, if the outcome of a scheme includes fewer lonely citizens, increased civic engagement across generations, and high quality non-medical care for more people in the face of remarkable state retrenchment, I don’t really care whether human beings need an incentive to go next door and keep someone company. Sorry chaps, but there isn’t enough time for ideological soul-searching.

When talking about the scaling of Care4Care, a room of (probably) left-leaning design and arty types in the V&A were all passionately adamant that it must stay outside the institutions of the state. The NHS mustn’t ‘get their hands on it’, people said. The ideational discourse of the NHS, its internal cultural references, all institutionalised, and the baggage of the word ‘care’ as it exists within the bureaucratic structures of the NHS appeared at odds with the mutuality of Care4Care: the NHS provides you, individual, self-contained ill person, with care. Co-created, home-based, non-medical interventions seem antithetical to the ideational structures that make up our public services in health. People involved in the designing of user-centred public services want to keep them away from the ideational structures and the institutions of the public sector for fear of a) what might happen to services once subsumed, and b) of how people will perceive them and perhaps be reluctant to use them. The brand, perhaps, has become toxic.

So what does brand buy-in look like? The example most frequently cited to our inquiry has been the London 2012 Olympics, and particularly the Games Makers. This, of course, links to the voluntary aspect of Care4Care, and would perhaps challenge notions that volunteering, civic engagement and community spirit have been as absent in the UK as rationing and bee-hive hairdos (Amy Winehouse aside). As civic society brands seeking buy-in, where did the Games Makers succeed and the Big Society, for example, fail? The Big Society is perhaps the strongest example of a public sector brand becoming instantly toxic. First, and most obviously, 2012 was a concentrated, international, vibrant one-off. Also, it somehow appeared de-politicised; about citizens, not politicians and bureaucrats. By contrast, the ‘Big Society’ brand seemed opportunistic, and became too-quickly associated with austerity, seen as a way for politicians to justify the retrenchment of the state rather than as a way of reinvigorating civil society and empowering communities. But also, the Big Society was formulated and rolled out from Government within the institutions of Whitehall, and the Games Maker brand was carefully constructed through private sector brand consultants and in an office space high in the sky next to Canary Wharf. The question remains: at what point does the brand become toxic: when the institutions of Government get hold of it, or when the public recognise it as an public sector brand, and so turn away from it? Are we looking at a case of bad branding within Government, or would any brand coming out for the public sector be instantly toxic and very difficult to gain buy-in from citizens?

Through the process of redesigning public services, Government must think about the rebranding of public services. Citizen engagement and buy-in requires a strong focus on how a service brand sits with the end-user. The current ‘public sector’ brand doesn’t do this, and we need to work at re-framing how ‘the state’, ‘public services’, ‘the taxman’, ‘GP surgery’, ‘jobcentre’ echo through the population. Some would argue that brand consultants and service designers are those will the skill base to achieve this. Let’s see what our inquiry decides when we launch in 2013. 

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