Wise women’s words and new resolutions

Written for CYP Now, February 2019

In the last weeks of 2018, 15 year-old Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations and said "We have to speak clearly no matter how uncomfortable it may be...You are not mature enough to tell it like it is – even that burden you leave to us children". A few days later I read this from Rebecca Solnit: "To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt – or important or possible – and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.....There are so many ways to tell a lie... language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them".

These wise women have inspired me in my new resolve to stop using language that points us in the wrong direction and distorts our debates about doing the best for children, young people and families. Here are three terms I intend to stop using.

My first is the term 'efficiency savings' as a euphemism for funding cuts and doing 'more for less'. This doesn’t just make the cuts sound less draconian, or government spending decisions more purposeful than they really are. Efficiency has an important meaning that is not to do with money; in public and charitable services efficiency should mean responding promptly and effectively to everyone’s needs with the minimum of bureaucracy, without wasting people’s time and efforts. But right across our sector cuts are making our services, and the fraught job of delivering them, more inefficient, more bureaucratic. People in need are bounced from one overstretched agency to another or put on waiting lists for oversubscribed ones, wasting many people’s precious time – both citizens and professionals. The cuts are leading to greater inefficiency, and as overspends on council children’s services budgets rise, there are clearly no real savings either. 'Efficiency savings' is one of the ways that our sector’s language lies.

Second on my hit list is 'innovation'. Innovation is not innovative if everyone is doing it, but it has become a ubiquitous managerial fetish for Ministers, funders and organisations of all kinds, while all too rarely doing anything truly innovative. True innovation requires experimentation, and a majority of genuinely innovative experiments should be expected to fail when tried in practice. Real innovation can take place in public and charitable service but it is, and should be, quite rare and done with great care. I don’t believe it’s right to encourage widespread professional experimentation in the lives of real families. It is improvement, not innovation, that we should be nurturing across all services. The prized status of the word (if not the fact of) innovation implies it’s not good enough to be good at your profession as you’ve learnt and practised it - if you’re not innovating you’re part of the problem that innovators are trying to solve! But our reality today isn’t so new that everything we’ve learnt before is obsolete - human nature hasn’t changed, and nor has childhood. Children need safety, love and learning, fun and friendship. Families need homes, stable incomes, loving relationships, supportive community networks. People who’ve been wronged need justice; people fleeing in fear need sanctuary; people in despair need compassion; hungry people need food.  None of these needs is new and meeting them is not an innovation.

Third is 'Early Intervention'. This presents a big challenge for me as I do still believe that prevention is better than cure; a stitch in time does save nine. They are clichés because they speak to an abiding human truth. I’ve argued the case passionately for 'early intervention' throughout my career too, but in our current context I’ve come to find it increasingly misleading and divisive. It has regrettably been joined by the term 'late intervention', and together they are now misused as a false binary for categorising and targeting people by their needs and problems, instead of describing the rich spectrum of diverse services and support that should be available to all children and families. It has come to imply that we’ve already spent too much money on children who depend on our services for survival, when we could get better value for our money by spending it on more children in less acute need. But it is never 'too late' to make a positive difference in a child’s life, and no one of any age, in any society, was ever helped 'too early'.

I’ve offered my top three here in the knowledge that they may pose an uncomfortable challenge to some readers, which is exactly what I feel Greta and Rebecca encouraged me to do. I point no finger of blame at any of my readers and valued sector colleagues for using these terms though – I am merely challenging myself to use different terms that avoid unintended implications. It’s precisely because we’ve all been using them to frame and navigate our shared realities and priorities – to create our story - that I feel their misuse and implications are worth discussing. Do share your own suggestions and your views on mine with the hashtag #EveryWordMatters.