Don’t keep it a secret

The case for national communications on energy use

It seems odd to have to convince government to show off their own policies, but a newly published Green Alliance report argues that a whole raft of consumer-facing energy policies are in danger of sinking if we don’t have a co-ordinated communications plan. With the rising cost of fossil fuels and the recession grinding on, we can’t afford the usual lacklustre take-up of energy efficiency polices with the Green Deal, the smart meter roll-out and the renewable heat incentive. If the government is going to protect the public from our rising bills, it needs to show clearly and explicitly what’s in place to help reduce our costs. That will take a bit more than a departmental press release.

A clear government narrative is especially important when it comes to energy: policies that will save people money in this area face unique difficulties; in the first instance, mounting suspicion around the motives of energy companies selling it to them and, in the second, having to overcome a vocal, if eccentric, opposition to any policy that involves decarbonising. We’ve already seen how odd it can get: one quiet weekend, war was declared on proposed changes to building regulations. A Lib Dem tax on our conservatories? Aux barricades! This bizarre clarion call conveniently ignored the fact that the idea was a key Conservative one, and applicable only to the most enormous conservatories. Also, it wouldn’t have been a tax, as householders would have been eligible for Green Deal funding to help pay for the improvements involved. As Kevin McCloud said, "If that makes it a tax, let’s have more of them." Three wrong out of three wrong, but this kind of puffing and blowing becomes accepted wisdom for the public if the government does not offer its own narrative, stating clearly what it’s trying to do.

This governmental shyness about communicating contrasts with the openness we’re seeing more generally; every bill’s amendment can be data mined, we can watch live footage of traffic cameras, find out every (declared) ministerial meeting, or check on crimes rates in our area. We have all this data, but so little information.

The National Archives website shows what a change in approach this is for government. It contains decades of public information video footage, covering everything from rabies to the 1971 census. Most apt is the rather surreal 1947 approach to energy efficiency as the public are told to "watch their meters". Most use fear to get their point across: the post war austerity need to overcome the general decline in quality of life, more recently, fear of climate change. Perhaps the most famous is Norman Fowler’s apocalyptic (and effective) national television film on AIDS.

But fear isn’t the route our report advocates. Instead, we think the message should be about opportunity. As government once did with films on the right to buy, or what the birth of the NHS meant for the public, a national message, backed up by local promotion, should make clear to us the opportunities on offer. A co-ordinated, simple, but comprehensive message will get trusted organisations on board, and counter the risk of conflicting and contradictory communications.

Green Alliance’s report, Neither sermons nor silence, which we put together with a broad consortium of businesses, argues that successfully communicating energy policies and, more importantly, securing take-up, can’t be managed by the private sector alone. A disjointed approach runs the risk of creating confusion and mistrust. Scottish Power, one of the businesses who fed into our report, and an enthusiastic advocate of the Green Deal, states clearly that a national approach to communications is vital to complement its own efforts and provide a foundation on which they can build customer engagement.

This is about being sensible with public money. These policies have cost a lot to develop; they will cost more in delivery and even more in failure. Without an effective communications strategy, a lot of taxpayers’ money will be wasted. When the Change4Life healthy eating campaign had its budget frozen, it saw a 90 per cent drop in calls to its information line. The government, realising that some communications money is well spent, restored the campaign backed with private sector contributions. We need to learn from such lessons and encourage the government to say, loudly and clearly, what it is doing for us.

Shout it from the rooftops, the 6 O'Clock news, the Today Show - just don't keep it quiet.

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt