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A salutary tale – why we need to remember that people are people.

October 15, 2010

I have been working in the public sector for over a year now, after what felt like a lifetime (and a vocation) in the local newspaper industry.

When I first joined the public sector I had to create a translation dictionary as the language was so alien to me – after all who really could understand finding VFM in the KLOEs?

Over a year on and I have learned to read public sector – and also to speak it – and here in lies the cautionary tale.

Over the last year people (who have always been people to me – albeit readers and listeners as well) have become customers, patients, residents, claimants, etc.  They have become chaotic, just coping, needy, thriving, high capacity, high need, high demand etc.  I never realised how insidious this language is and how it can be a barrier to remembering that these are real people we are talking about… not case studies only contained within the pages of a book, report, paper or briefing note.

Today I was at an event bringing together some of the most energetic and enthusiastic people working in my region to share learning from innovative work that is being done to help improve chances in life for people who are struggling.

We watched videos of people explaining their situation, their understanding, their needs and their hopes and aspirations for the future.  We were then asked to participate in an exercise to map these people’s need and capacity on a chart – from high to low.  We had table discussions and then at the end we were asked to say, to the whole room of about 150 people, what we had thought about each individual.

I volunteered a comment about one of these people – and using my newly learnt public sector speak gave a comprehensive (and probably far too wordy) summary of our conversation.

Can you imagine my mortification when an hour later the very person I had been pontificating about (and yes the moment he stood up and became a real person I realised that’s what I had been doing) stood up to give a talk and let us know he had been there all day.

A cautionary tale and for me a salutary lesson – people are people and whatever their needs or our strategies, policies etc – we should never, ever forget that.

I really hope I wont ever forget it again.

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One Comment
  1. Spot on, and so are all the people at the conference angsting and pontificating and fretting and strategising about these barely functoning, high need, or speaking personally service resistant customers clients pain in the arses, how well are the coping themselves.

    It pays to bear this in mind in a world containing google and intelligent unafraid pains in the arses, public servants public names, no protection from public exposure.

    Don’t think all of them get it.

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