My first six months as a civil servant have been full of wonderful learnings, both about myself and what it means to work for the government. One of the things I’ve found the most interesting is the use of language, how it’s rooted in culture and the knock-on effect it can have on the way that we design and build services and products.

We often forget that the way speak, how we categorise things or how we refer to something, changes the way we interact, build relationships and offer services around that “thing”. The language we use if a symptom of the culture and environment that we work in and says a lot about the situation we’re designing for.

Ultimately, it’s the way we interpret language that’s important. Our interpretation of language is reflective of our culture, our past experiences, society, work environment and a plethora of different things. The way we speak and the language we use, not only determines the attitudes we have to the services we’re building but the relationships we have with the people we’re building for.

Here are a few examples that really stick out for me.

Government ≠ business

Since this was my first public sector job after having worked in start-up and small business environments, I was shocked to walk into the office and hear people speaking about government services as “the business”. Granted there’s a cost/reward relationship between the public and the government, through people paying taxes in order to run governmental services. However, the government is abjectly different to business, and in my opinion, exists to serve the needs of people (in very basic and simple terms).

As a civil servant, our title describes our job. A servant to society. We’re here to make sure that government services are served to the people who need them. We are publicly funded to serve the public who funds us. We are not for profit and the government does not exist to make any money. It’s an emblem of a social enterprise.

Furthermore, thinking about government services in a business sense assumes that people have a choice about using that business. For example, Tesco and ASDA are both businesses, and as consumers, we have a choice about spending our money in either.

Thinking of government services as a part of a business changes the relationship we have with the people it exists to serve and shifts the focus into thinking that government should define services based on financial reward, rather than the needs of the people we’re serving and public efficiency. (Again, I recognise the importance of understanding the costs of new services, but it certainly shouldn’t be the only reason for government services being developed). It dehumanises the role of government and changes the relationship we have with the public who fund the government and are ultimately the only reason civil servants exist.

Users ≠ customers

Once the government is framed as a business, language quickly slips into thinking of people as customers.

As this happens, we start changing the relationship we have with people who are using the service, and why the service exists in the first place.  “Customer” makes us think that people have a choice in using a government service and that there’s some sort of transaction happening.

People don’t have a choice about using government services. There’s no alternative government to use if you’re living in that country, and therefore there’s no consumer choice (because government services are not the same as business services). So if you’re a taxpayer, you have to interact with HMRC – there’s no way around it. You can’t make a choice about using an equivalent, it’s HMRC or nothing and you even put your freedom in jeopardy if you don’t use it!

Plus, once you have a business and customer relationship as the normal language, it’s easy to shift priorities and place business needs above customer needs. This is because of the associated financial costs that underpin decision making. Since the government is not a business and solely exists to serve people, people should be at the heart of decision making. The government does not have needs, the only needs it has is to serve the public who fund it. Of course, it’s important that decisions are cost-effective and the financial circumstances are important but shouldn’t be the driver for government services. It would be naive to assume that we have unlimited resources.

Thinking of service users as people, or users creates a different relationship. It acknowledges that the person is using the service to achieve something, to reach a certain outcome and immediately humanises the situation and builds empathy with the public. Using government services is just the starting point, but people use government services in order to live and carry out their daily routine as a person and we, therefore, need to think of when and how they’re interacting with government services in the context of their life. Contextualising the situation is key to building efficient services for people, not customers.

Acronyms ≠ words

Acronyms don’t mean anything unless you understand what they stand for. Stepping into my life as a civil service, I was inundated with acronyms and tried to understand what they all meant. Not only did it take a few months to have a grasp on what they stood for, but the acronyms being used didn’t clarify what the products or services they stood for were.

It has become the norm that acronyms are an accepted part of everyday language. But using them consistently, makes the acronyms lose meaning and decontextualises what they actually stand for. It’s like using an adjective when you really need to be using a verb.

The more we use acronyms as words, the more detached government services become. Government services slowly but surely become more detached from the people using the services and what you end up with is a gaping hole between the people building the service and the people using them. Acronyms are not words, and we’re going to use acronyms they should be relevant and easy to understand with reference to people who will be using the government service.

So, what am I saying?

I think there’s a lot of cultural change that needs to shift in government and I think the language that is being used is symptomatic of that culture. The way we’re framing government services needs to refocus on the people who need to use them, and why they exist in the first place in order to build more efficient, and ultimately, cost-effective government services.

At the moment, the language we’re using prevents government services from building empathy with people and puts a barrier up to government service prioritising people’s. There are lots of reasons why it might exist, a top-down culture for example. Co-designing and bringing users into the conversation more, could be a great way to start dispelling the customer/business relationship that currently exists.

There’s certainly a culture shift that’s happening at the moment, and digital is definitely helping to move that along, but it’s at the very beginning of that journey and there’s a long way to go. But, language can be a great mechanism to kickstart a culture shift and it’s far too important to be ignored.

1 Comment

  1. I used to hate hearing my colleagues refer to the department as ‘the business’, for all the reasons you describe, plus, I think it puts staff in a defensive frame of mind. Suddenly, that department isn’t part of government and public service. Instead, it’s fighting for a budget allocation, a headcount and to have a profile in Whitehall.
    Language permeates the working culture of teams and the more we can talk about services and users, the better.

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