Don’t keep it a secret

The case for national communications on energy use

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

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.