The language of business draws heavily on sporting metaphors, not least during events like the World Cup. Business is about competition, so we talk of beating the competition, appointing winners to senior management posts and judging progress by moving up the league table.
‘The construction metaphor fits with the restructuring of the NHS and other parts of the public sector’
The message is that we can only succeed at the expense of others, when in the public sector the opposite is true. A local authority has many more partners than opponents. The public sector is a complex mixture of completion, cooperation and integration and it really isn’t helpful to compare it to a football match. The language we use needs to reflect this.
Last month the chief executive of Marks & Spencer defended the company’s failure to hit three of its four sales targets by explaining “we needed to do a lot of heavy lifting” – meaning we had a few big issues to sort out before we could get on with the building work. The construction metaphor fits with the restructuring of the NHS and other parts of the public sector, especially when linked with phrases like “less architecture more engineering”; meaning less emphases on the vision and structure more on making it work.
An ageing Ford Cortina
My favourite analogy comes from the chief executive of Talk Talk, who describes the company as “an ageing Ford Cortina going flat out in the fast lane of the M4 in the pouring rain. We are always hammering along faster than anyone thinks is sensible, with things not quite right, but huge enthusiasm.” This certainly captures my time in social services. These metaphors are a better fit than sports ones or, worse, military ones.
We could make more use of the family as a metaphor for how the public sector operates but we don’t tend to use parenting terms to describe our relationships with staff and partners, such as setting boundaries, providing financial support and nurturing, as this “paternalistic” style is out of fashion. We sometimes refer to partnerships as like marriages requiring trust, shared responsibilities, a willingness to make it work and being able to rely on each other. Of course there are the arguments, usually over money or whether our contribution gets the recognition we feel it deserves, and sometimes there are acrimonious break-ups.
What we need is a business language that reflects the reality of the public sector. Any ideas?