Words of power

17 February 2012

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

Most of us don’t have the power which Humpty Dumpty claimed for himself to make words mean what we want them to mean. We may be able to stretch and pummel meanings, we may even be able to add new meanings to existing words, but we can’t generally obliterate older meanings, and we certainly can’t choose which of a set of meanings to accept and which to ignore.

Take ‘Whitehall’, for example. It’s a street in London, and at one level, that’s all it is. But apart from being a very literal place, it is also a figurative place. It is symbolically the seat of government, the collective noun for civil servants, or rather for mandarins. It is the setting for Yes Minister and is the scene of Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom’s many triumphs. Decades after they were last seen in the wild, there is a slight – though wholly misplaced – feeling that bowler hats might be encountered there. It is even said to be the frontline in an apparent war between civil servants and MPs.

In being all of those things, it perpetuates imagery and understanding which is not wholly wrong but is in many ways outdated and inaccurate. It has subtexts which are never said and so can never be unsaid.

Meanwhile, in another part of ‘Whitehall’, though at some distance from Whitehall, the iconoclasts of the Government Digital Service are readying themselves for the next stage:

Later this month we will unveil another bit of our GOV.UK beta – the element that explains the work and workings of government. This is intended to replace the many separate sites run by government organisations, simplifying things for people who are personally or professionally interested in how government works and what it is doing.

Neil Williams, who leads the work, is well aware of the difficulties intrinsic in it, not least in pinning down quite what it is we are talking about:

In developing this component we’ve found ourselves returning frequently to the question: “what is government policy?”

Not “what is government policy on issue X” (a separate problem which I will return to in a minute) but, more philosophically, what is and isn’t a government policy and how do you know when you’ve met one?

Neil’s post – and the many interesting comments on it – reflect the difficulty of this challenge and the determination of GDS to meet it.  But parenthetically and unwittingly, I wonder if the thinking is being constrained in a way which may turn out to be unhelpful:

(We’ve never settled on the perfect name for this bit of the project – we sometimes call it ‘the corporate platform’, we sometimes call it ‘Whitehall’, if you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably come across both terms, but we mean the same thing. We will attempt to be consistent in future and call it ‘Whitehall’.)

Of all the things we might choose to worry about, the internal name for a component might well seem to be somewhere right at the bottom of the list. And in one sense it is. But in another sense, all the baggage behind the term may make the issue much less trivial than that. In some parts of government, there is a reasonably clear cut division between policy and other things: policy is what a traditional policy department does, and anything it doesn’t do isn’t policy. In other parts of government, though, the boundaries are much less clear. Not all that is corporate is policy.  Not all that is policy is generated in Whitehall. There are far more civil servants who rarely, if ever, set foot in Whitehall than there are civil servants whose offices overlook it. The stereotype says that policy is what mandarins do in Whitehall, while delivery is what oiks do in the provinces, but that stereotype is not just pejorative, it is plain wrong.

I am all in favour of the attempt to put some structure and consistency around the presentation of policy. I am sure that the commenter on Neil’s post who wanted policy material kept well apart from the rest of what gov.uk is doing speaks for many. But if even sub-consciously we let the layers of meaning of ‘Whitehall’ cloud thinking in this area, there is a risk that we end up not just with too limited a view about the scope of the corporate activity of government organisations, but even more importantly that we fail to see the continuity across the spectrum from policy to delivery in some of the areas where central government most directly interacts with citizens.

GDS has deliberately positioned itself far enough from the physical Whitehall to create a useful psychological distance and to give itself access to much better sandwich shops. But even now it may not be quite as far as it thinks from conceptual Whitehall, and the closer it gets to transactions and services, the more that will matter.

It’s only a small thing. But while ‘corporate platform’ may lack zing (and by all means call it something which sounds less boring), let that not be a reason for letting the overtones of Whitehall into the engine room of gov.uk. For we all know what happened to Humpty Dumpty.

2 comments

Very interesting post. Like the use of Humpty Dumpty.
Strangely, I had been thinking about the concept of policy this week when discussions on Twitter (prompted by the major annual Arts Council conference) turned to the issue of lack of culture policy. I have been pondering what policy is (in the past, I have been involved with creating, influencing and implementing policies…I think…”Policy” was in 1 of my job titles for a few years).
Perhaps Gov.UK need some artistic interventions now and then to prevent them from slipping into too Whitehallish a mode?

by Janet E Davis on 17 February 2012 at 1:35 pm. #

[...] (information about how government works and what it’s doing) perfectly. It had none of the stigmas of its alternatives. It’s been the name of our product, our blog and our team. I loved it at [...]

by On dropping the name “Inside Government” from GOV.UK | Government Digital Service on 30 July 2013 at 10:34 am. #