Beyond Slogans – How politicians can restore trust with the public.
Malcolm Turnbull, in announcing his challenge to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said Australians ‘deserve more than slogans’. Music to my ears – but then I thought, hang on, isn’t that just another slogan?
It seems politicians are well trained to deliver repetitive, short ‘slogan-like’ messages, in the belief this will help their messages to stick. (They worked very well for Tony Abbott whilst in Opposition, not too well afterwards). Politicians are trained and coached by media and communications experts to use simple, repetitive messages. Whilst effective for landing messages; in my view they have done nothing but damage confidence in government, and our political leaders.
Of course there is more to this lack of confidence in politicians than the use of slogans. However if trust is to be restored there is a set beliefs, attitudes and patterns to be interrupted.
Here are my 8 tips then. Tips for building trust and getting beyond ‘short-term’ political behaviour.
1. Stop pretending there is unity on every issue within your party. We know you don’t. A consistent party line might sound like a great thing to do for your party, but it actually erodes trust. It makes you unbelievable. Share some of your differences openly – demonstrate some respect for each other’s opinions, and outline how you might work through those differences. You will be surprised to know how refreshing this would be for the public.
2. Stop pretending everything another party says is rubbish, and totally different to your self-professed superior position. That is also unbelievable. It just reinforces to the rest of us you are much more interested in point scoring than the issue or the policy. Therefore it does not help us to trust you. It suggests you don’t really have a well thought out position of your own. It is fundamentally lazy.
3. Be prepared to say you have changed your mind if you have a good reason to do so. It doesn’t mean you are weak. It might mean you now have better information. It will show you are also big enough to say you can be wrong; and you are open to learning. This builds trust rather than eroding it.
4. To avoid having to change your mind too often, don’t rush to a solution and put yourself in a bind. Rather, demonstrate a different kind of leadership; one where you can clearly frame what the question is you’re determined to find an answer to with the help of others.
5. Remember the wise words of Bertrand Russell, who said ‘the greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution’. Well, we need more thinkers, and we need more attention to understanding what it is we need to address before being offered simplistic solutions.
Invite us to have dialogue over questions that are worth having a conversation about. Being a great leader is more about posing a great question, then pretending you already have an answer. ‘Stop the boats’ was put forward as a strong commitment, and a solution. But what question was it actually answering?
6. Don’t be spooked by articulate and well-organised lobby groups, or shock jocks for that matter, of any persuasion. Everybody has a right to a point of view – but one of the problems is that too few participate in matters of public importance. Rather than react to what the few are saying, invite broader and more diverse participation in the conversation. The reality is that most people can figure things out in a mature, and intelligent way, given enough information and time to deliberate.
7. Don’t confuse being a strong leader, with being stubborn and rigid. It takes lots of strength, guts even, to commit to a process where collective wisdom can rise to the surface. The opposite of being strong is just doing ‘as you are told’ by those who are very opinionated, and who believe the answers are obvious. Sticking to a party line could be at the expense of learning something new.
8. Don’t just listen to your mates. It may be comforting, reassuring and safe, but it can lead to only listening to convenient points of view; views that do not challenge; views that accord with your view of the world. There have been plenty of examples where confirmation bias has led to poor statements and decisions. One example would be then Treasurer Joe Hockey’s statement that ‘it’s not that hard to buy a property in Sydney, you just need to get a well paying job!’ One can only imagine Joe was sharing cigar with other relatively affluent mates to come up with this one!
Those who are committed to the art and discipline of innovation know diversity is a critical component. If you do not want to innovate or learn anything new, just keep talking to the people you find convenient to your own point of view (ie, doing what you mostly do).
Thankfully some leaders are already moving in this direction. For instance South Australia’s Premier Jay Weatherill’s leading the Together SA initiative, and using Citizens’ Juries to respond to complex issues such as alcohol fuelled violence. Several years ago the then Premier of Queensland Campbell Newman initiated The Queensland Plan, inviting all Queenslanders into a dialogue about their long term priorities and directions. An unprecedented 80,000 people participated in the process.
Recently, at local government level, a councillor at the City of Yarra, Amanda Stone, suggested that their council should engage a broad cross section of their municipality to figure out how they should accommodate inevitable population growth, whilst respecting high value heritage, character of villages and growing competition for public space. It was a bold process given the complexity. Some were very skeptical, but once again, genuine intent combined with a carefully designed process, led to very wise recommendations, and greater appreciation for the complexity of planning.
I no longer feel surprised by such outcomes. It is so easy to underestimate the ability of citizens to get their heads around complex issues. We have enough evidence to know how it can be done; processes of greater sophistication, and greater respect. Smart leaders are deciding to tap into this. They know we have outgrown the politics of slogans, simplistic solutions and of polarizing, fruitless debates.