England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

What are we talking about when we talk about local government?

Over the course of the summer some seemingly unrelated strands of activity have all made me think about language, writes Jonathan Carr-West; the ways we use it and the ways it uses us.

The first and most obvious activity has been travel: and not just holidays, pleasant though those are, over the course of the summer members of the lGiU team have been working as far afield as Paris, San Francisco, Gaborone, Florence New York and Kigali. One of the things you notice in doing this is how similar are some of the preoccupations people have in different parts of the world. In each of these places, for example, there was a concern about the relationships between central and local government and an active push towards decentralisation. Equally, we had conversations in all of these locations about different and more sustainable social and economic relationships. But you also notice very rapidly that when you talk about “decentralisation” or “resilience” in these international settings you are often concealing behind a common terminology some radically different, contextually specific, ideas about power, or democracy, or accountability.

In a completely different setting this can be seen in the key political drama of the summer, the Labour leadership organisation. Reams have been and continue to be written about this, but it seems to me that one key problem is that Corbyn’s supporters have a completely different idea about the nature of opposition, of leadership and of what a political party is for than the supporters of the other contenders. The fact that many of them were all signed up to a common party line and a common language from 2010-2015 means that these differences surfaced apparently very suddenly and with no shared basis on which to discuss or resolve them. We await the outcome.

Finally, and bringing it back to local government, we have been facilitating conversations about devolution in many parts of the country as councils rush to meet the government’s 4th September deadline. These are generally positive and creative conversations but they have two notable features: firstly you can, if you are not careful, get quite a long way into the conversation before realising that everyone in the room understands the terms differently and secondly, you rapidly realise that there are certain red light words (“boundary change”, “unitary”, “reorganisation” and “mayor” amongst them) that people get very fixed on and that can derail the conversation. Often we begin our facilitation of these sessions with a plea “not to get hung up on the words”.

In all of these examples what we see is that while language is an invaluable tool it can also be a trap. There are three ways in which this holds especially true for councils.

First, the language they use very often seems to signal particular political or intellectual positions or to stake a fixed position in a debate: this can create unnecessary oppositions and make it harder to progress collaborations.

Second, the language we use can set up a barrier between public organisations and the citizens they serve. We all purport to decry jargon but we all use and abuse it.

Third, the language we use can genuinely constrain the way we think, trapping us in particular intellectual paradigms. For instance the way in which councils talk about “universal” or “targeted and specific” services when setting budgets always already defines particular ways of thinking about the nature and scope of those activities.

So we seem to be faced with a double bind, language locks us into ways of thinkning, but it’s also always slippery, meaning different things to different people: the essential base of communication but also an inevitable cause of misunderstanding and difference.

At LGiU we notice this when trying to talk about what a council is or does. Our autumn programme focuses on building resilient places, improving care and making devolution work, but it’s difficult to talk about any of these things without either tying yourself to a modish agenda or becoming far too abstract.

Some of this is just the way things are, as Wittengenstein said, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”, but there are things we can do.

As we all return to work, we could take a jargon holiday. Easy to say and hard to do (and yes, I do know that this column would fail that test), but what would happen if we tried just for a week to write and talk in ways that an intelligent ten year old could understand?

And we can hold language lightly. Every time we use, or hear someone else use, a phrase that seems to point towards a particular position, ask ourselves what else it might mean, what sits behind it, what are the range of possible meanings? That’s a hard mental exercise, but worthwhile if we want to free ourselves from the traps and snares of speech.

Language may ultimately define our limits, but there’s nothing to stop us giving those limits a good stretch!

Jonathan Carr-West is LGiU chief executive; this article first appeared in theMJ.