Sunday, 26 September 2010

Q&A: Changing minds with language

People don't like to complain. No-one wants to be thought of as someone who makes a fuss. For a few years now I've been suggesting to people that we shouldn't think about complaining, but to remind ourselves that we are reporting a problem. Organisations who hear about a problem should thank the people who let them know about it, go off and fix it and be grateful for the advice.
If you smell gas in the street, you call the emergency number and report the leak. The gas men come and fix it; it saves money - all that costly gas floating off into space - and it means that nearly buildings are less likely to ignite. Everyone wins. Imagine we called it "complaining about a gas leak" instead of "reporting a gas leak". People would no longer think if it as a public duty, but something they didn't want to do in case they were classed as moaners.

You can do that with language.

Think for a moment about NGOs, non-governmental organisations. Things like the Big Lottery Fund, the Sports Council, The New Economics Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Trust, organisations that get useful things done.

Then think about Qangos, those cash-frittering, unaccountable think-tanks that were the bane of late 20th Century life, which we thought had disappeared. No-one knows what they are or what they do. So if David Cameron wants to get rid of them, what could possibly be wrong with that? But why haven't we heard anything about them for 20 years?

David Cameron worked in PR; the man is self-winding spin doctor. He's taking NGOs, putting the Q&A back on the front and making the institutions that currently organise a lot of his Big Society sound as if they are wasting public money. A Qango is a Quasi-Autonomous Non-Govermental Organisation. He's trying to make NGOs sound useless by renaming them, taking an old term of abuse and applying it to justify cutting them to save taxes.

But quite a few of the ones he wants to get rid of don't use public money; some of them are profitable. The British Film Institute is one. The Heritage Lottery Fund is funded by - no prizes for guessing - the National Lottery, not taxes. Nope. Chinless porridge-faced Dave is cutting (qa)NGOs because they aren't run by exclusively by his mates. Look closely at his proposals, then be outraged. Then do something. Look up the NGOs that affect your own life in a good way. Think what would happen if they disappeared. Write to your MP.

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