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23 March 2015

Monday 23 March 2015

Commissioning jargon keeps cropping up in conversations with people we are trying to help. How to get it right – by Steph Taylor

Article was originally published in The Guardian here: http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2015/mar/23/neet-words-public-services-commissioning-jargon

I help young people get into work and I know the words I use have a significant impact. One woman I worked with recently said she liked our organisation because it was the first place she hadn’t been called a neet – the acronym used to describe young people not in education, employment or training – to her face.

Words are important when helping people explore their aims and motivations. If I ask someone, “What’s the problem?”, it suggests there is a problem when there may not be, which can set back our working relationship. If I suggest, “That must be holding you back, then?”, it makes an assumption about someone’s situation, which they might see in a more positive light.

One insight has stayed with me. Selahattin, a young man who had previously been long-term unemployed, told me about how a careers adviser using positive, open language had allowed him to identify the barriers he faced in progressing to work more quickly.

He was helped to take responsibility for his progress, rather than being a passive recipient of a service. For him, this contrasted with previous tick box assessments where, if he didn’t identify exactly with the language used, he didn’t get the support he needed. These assessments had taken the same amount of staff time and were based on the same principle of a one-on-one relationship – but had a much slower rate of progression.

So if language is important, what can be done in policy terms to reflect this?

I’ve been exploring just that as part of the connecting policy with practice programme – a partnership between the Institute for Government and the Big Lottery Fund to connect policymakers in Whitehall with people delivering services on the ground.

I’ve found that people see the language of policy and commissioning being directly funnelled into the language used on the frontline – and this can prevent those using public services getting what they need.

Many services are determined by the language of outcomes and funding. Charities, for instance, may call service users different things according to the funding stream that pays for the worker attached to them. Schools may get special needs funding because they know how to describe a child’s need. A jobcentre may decide how likely someone is to be an “off-flow”.

Language can also act as an excuse to create a divide between services. People are viewed as needing a particular service because of the label attached to them at the commissioning stage.

Take, for example, tenders that require mental health services to work with “hard to reach young people”. A charity might respond to this, detailing on its website that it targets “hard to reach young people”. An 18-year-old sitting at home struggling to leave the house is unlikely to refer herself to the charity on reading that. At the same time, a nearby charity might tell a 22-year-old that they can’t help with his mental health problem because “hard to reach young people” are catered for down the road. The language we use risks creating services that are “hard to reach”.

To compensate, workers adapt the language they use and communication becomes interpretation. But there may be a completely different way of having the conversation.

Our outreach work is peer-led. Young people who have been through services engage new participants in their communities. They are not told what to say or how to talk about the programme, nor given tick boxes to get young people in. They can speak their own language; the conversation is in their hands. Then, if these new young people don’t fit our funder’s criteria, we refer them into other provision.

I aim to establish a pilot project as part of my work on Talent Match London that will involve trying different verbal and written approaches to engaging with people, and tracking the outcomes to determine whether we are changing the way they feel and act.

In the meantime, here are my tips on how to create a better experience for people using services:

For government and commissioners

  • Work with ministers. They know how powerful language is in reflecting public concerns, but they need to know the risks it can have on those they are trying to help.
  • Think about whether the way you describe your service will automatically create a service-user group.
  • Allow for local and regional variation. It’s important that decisions on programmes are made locally, to involve workers in the way they talk about services. The Troubled Families Initiative, for instance,is called Together for Families in Cornwall, or Positive Family Steps in Portsmouth. This avoids a “UK plc” centralised attitude to services.

For service providers

  • Think about and challenge the way you use language.
  • Understand what you want to achieve and plan your language use accordingly.
  • Co-producing services with users is an effective way to test out language use: test different approaches and be willing to respond.
  • Assume less, check more.
  • Make a genuine connection. See the interaction as a conversation, not a process.
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