Publication versus publicity

‘If you want to ensure something has zero publicity, announce it in Parliament’

…or so the joke goes in Westminster where the Commons seems to be the last place in the world to find out about what happens. These days, a published written statement normally suffices – you’ve announced something but hardly anyone’s read it. For those of you who are not aware, you can find the written statements from the previous day in Parliament here.

It’s a bit like those ‘official notices’ at the back of newspapers. Hardly anyone reads them – let alone understands them because they are written in planning & transport legal-speak that very few people in this country understand. The next thing you know, someone’s gone and built a hideous community-destroying monstrosity at the end of the road. Yes Belvedere Cambridge, I’m looking at you! (There is was no need to build a self-contained gated community in that part of Cambridge).

Some of you may have followed the PolarBearGate story where the BBC was accused of faking the footage of polar bear cubs. The BBC said that it wasn’t faked because they made clear on their website that the footage was from a zoo. I’m struggling to find the link so if anyone has it, please add it to the comments section.

The BBC’s response is similar to the sort of response you’d expect from a large corporation or from a department of state. It was made public but it was not publicised in a manner that would enable large numbers of people to pick up on it. Therefore the impression that was given by the BBC was that the footage was real even though it had stated somewhere else that it wasn’t.

Stuff like that does not do the BBC or any other organisation that acts in this manner any favours whatsoever. In a more outrageous scenario, the Prime Minister could announce the privatisation of democracy to the highest bidder in the middle of nowhere where the public is not nominally banned from, and tell MPs during the vote that the relevant papers are available to them from the North Pole, not that this should worry them but to trust the whips anyway. It’s been announced and MPs have voted on it but no one heard the announcement and none of the MPs knew what they were voting for, but ‘they had the opportunity to intervene and chose not to.’ I’ve seen ministers use the “well s/he had the opportunity earlier” put down before. It’s not pleasant to see – especially when the minister has made almost zero attempt other than the bare minimum required by convention or by law to publicise something in order to generate responses.

One of the concepts that I stumbled across at a social media conference earlier this year was about systems of feedback. How do organisations gather information that can be analysed and fed back into their systems to improve decision-making? When it comes to policy-making and public administration, the continual improvement of these systems is essential. The problem is that party politics can get in the way – especially when it means telling those elected to public office information that they really do not want to know or hear. Such as “Tony, there really are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”.

In the short term, not publicising things may bring party-political or commercial advantage. It may be convenient due to time pressures not to let anyone who can slow down your progress in doing something. In the longer term however, it misleads people, can make them angry and lead to organisations making bad decisions. This is the situation we have across a number of fields.

There’s only so long an organisation can get away with this – especially in the world that we are currently living in at the moment. One of the reasons why I think people are so apathetic and hold politicians in such low esteem is because of the cumulative effect of this sort of decision-making that has happened over the decades. At some stage you end up with what we had with the MPs’ expenses scandal: a crisis of democracy. After the expenses scandal the “duck house” parliament had no legitimacy in the eyes of the people whatsoever. Some of you may be interested in the analysis between possible links between safe seats and the expenses scandal.

So if you’re a decision-maker in a big organisation, don’t be surprised if people get angry with your pleadings about stuff being public when you’ve done everything possible to make that ‘publicly accessible’ piece of information as hidden and inaccessible as possible.




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