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‘Getting the narrative right is vital if you want engage public interest’

Grant Speed, managing director of Odgers Interim, reports from the organisation’s recent Annual Public Services Dinner, addressed by HS2’s Paul Chapman.

Paul Chapman, partner at Westbourne Communications and interim communications director at HS2 Ltd (pictured), advised an audience of public service executives and leaders that it is essential to get the narrative right and to find ways of effectively engaging the public’s interest in national projects in order to avoid widespread disaffection.

He was addressing the Odgers Interim Annual Public Services Dinner, which this year took place at Stock Restaurant in Manchester on 1 April and was entitled: 'Consultation and transparency versus national interest? Winning hearts and minds in tough times…'

Chapman started his speech by giving an overview of the journey HS2’s communications plan has been on. He summarised how the project had launched as a “railway solution” but was now clearly seen as “a real catalyst for change in terms of regeneration and a once in a generation chance to rebalance the spread of wealth and prosperity in the UK”. He told attendees that until January 2013 the communications for HS2 was mainly centred on ministerial announcements and consultation events.

That same month, HS2 Ltd unveiled its ‘Engine for Growth’ narrative with the prime minister, the deputy prime minister and chancellor all repeating the phrase on national media within 30 minutes of each other. The next few months saw a string of high profile opinion formers attack the project, from Peter Mandleson and Alistair Darling to commentators and journalists – mainly around its rising budget.

Chapmansaid: “We were working in the background to pull together the materials we needed to provide the intellectual and economic argument for what became called a ‘fight-back’. We made headway in the autumn with a more balanced media commentary emerging and voices of supporters beginning to be heard."

He went onto to describe how HS2 Ltd’s research has shown that what it calls ‘head’ language (economic reports, business cases, and route drawings) simply doesn’t provide lasting traction with the public. The jobs, skills and regeneration potential was always implicit in the project, but not as well-developed or as visible in the outward narrative. According to Chapman, the arrival of Sir David Higgins as chairman has seen a marked shift in direction and engagement.

He said: “The project has not massively changed and the benefits it will bring are still the same but the way we are approaching the argument is different as we have a narrative founded in the need to provide capacity and connectivity but expressed in a way that sets out for people the ability to create jobs, provide skills training and regeneration for regional communities... in very simple terms to equip the North and Midlands to succeed. This new narrative creates a point of engagement and dialogue for the public that can overcome the barriers of the ‘head’ language.

“This is the start of a process to move from an organisation set up to provide engineering development and consult on route options on behalf of government to one that engages fully, is transparent and which recognises the need to balance its communications between the ‘head’, which is an inescapable part of the process, and the ‘heart’, which provides the public support and momentum you need for a project that will span four parliaments in its delivery.”

Chapman then went onto discuss how the wider public services community can find ways to engage the public with national projects when outcomes seem far away, their impacts seem enormous and the processes of government create a language that acts as a barrier to reaching out to people’s emotions.

It’s about balancing consultation and transparency with the national interest, he said, citing the thoughts of Sir David who has said: “Time is cost and the best way to save cost is to plan well and proceed expeditiously.”

Chapman commented: “The regime for consultation requires the full unmitigated impacts to be laid out and then the mitigation to be explained. This feeds fears and is often technically complex and possibly impenetrable to many people. However, that’s not to say that people directly or indirectly impacted don’t deserve to be listened to or that their needs and issues shouldn’t be properly understood and appropriately dealt with. It’s more about not creating unnecessary stress.”

He discussed the need to engage before you consult, saying: “The private sector is excellent at that. Unsurprisingly, where you have businesses with long-term assets, they take a long-term view to winning hearts and minds of the public and of their stakeholders. This is something central government seems to struggle with, even though it is the guardian of the national assets. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the DNA of most departments that recognises the need to build up a long term narrative and engagement with the public.”

In his summary, and taking all the issues he covered into account, he posed two clear questions: How do we recognise that time is money and balance that against the needs of the individual? And how do we preserve our ability to deliver projects in the national interest?

He concluded: “It might just be as simple as recognising the value of listening and engaging in dialogue and not being scared to balance the risk of a judicial review with the need to engage with the public at all levels as you move through the journey of launching a major project. Or, it might be as straightforward as creating a new type of non-departmental public body that can have the freedoms to balance the need for accountability in spending public money with the need to use the best skills available in communications and engagement. Also, one that’s not afraid of using private sector communications and programme management skills to complement the public sector policy expertise at the very early stages of a project.”

Major national and more regional specific projects of all kinds are continuing to go through some challenging times and engagement is, of course, vital in their ultimate success. Being able to learn from Chapman’s first-hand experiences and insight was incredibly helpful. I’m sure HS2 will continue to divide opinion but it will also surely help to shape the country’s economy for decades to come.

Pictures from the event here.


Ian Reed   11/04/2014 at 11:58

In communications HS2 has been so successful that they have had to keep moving the goal posts. As each time they say HS2 will be good at this or that they have been found to be wrong. Also their success can be measured by the fact that over 2/3 of the population is opposed to HS2. So with a track record like that why is he still in his job?

PSE   11/04/2014 at 14:04

Most reputable surveys and opinion polls we've seen suggest opposition far below "2/3 of the population", Ian: what's your evidence for that claim?

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