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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Language of Reform?

By Henry Kippin

There’s a short piece in the online New Yorker at the moment – based on a conversation between US economists Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz. Faced with an American public petrified by the word ‘nationalisation’, they debated at a recent event some more acceptable alternatives to describe Omaba’s bank bailouts.

‘Pre-Privatisation’ – pretty straightforward, if a bit disingenuous. Implies a rapid return to a pre-crisis mode of operation.

Financial Reorganisation – not really sure what this means. Sounds like something the IMF would have ’suggested’ during the 1980s.

Conservatorship – now I’m definitely lost.

These examples might be tongue-in-cheek, but the idea that we should be softening the blow of the financial crisis with linguistic dexterity is pretty serious.

Part of the problem with the global financial system was its complexity – with impenetrable language providing a real barrier to popular understanding of the system. So if we didn’t really understand what was going on before the crash, we should certainly be pressing for clarity afterwards.

Maybe there are lessons here for public service reform in the UK. We are all now aware of the financial mess we are in. And most of us accept that public service spending as we know it will soon be a thing of the past. So do we call this adjustment? Retrenchment? Creative re-structuring? Does it matter?

I think it does. If our parties are honest about the choices they are facing (and their reasons for choosing them), they might expect a degree of understanding from the electorate. We may not be happy about the behaviour that got us here, but we should at least use the crisis as a means to demand more honesty and clarity from our politicians. And the best word I can think up for that is accountability.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 8:34 pm

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