Scrap the tech speak and use decision makers' language

By David Donaldson

August 7, 2015

Public servants need to remember to communicate in decision makers’ language if they want to be heard, argued Paul O’Connor, special adviser to the Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection, at last week’s Disrupt the Public Sector conference in Melbourne.

Paul O'Connor
Paul O’Connor

“The disruption and innovation is how do we access the multiple layers of that monolith, I call it the executive layer, the officer’s mess,” he told the audience. “Senior officers are living in another world, you need to sensitise yourself to their world and how they make decisions.”

Though he was speaking specifically to a tech demographic, the lessons are no doubt useful across the board for those needing to communicate across professional boundaries.

“We need to start at the bottom and bubble up. We also need to make sure people at the top are sensitised to some of this language,” explained O’Connor. “Some of this language has no meaning to them because it’s not their background. They’ve come out of poli sci, hard economics, they don’t know what ‘lean’ means — they don’t care what lean means,” he argued.

“They want to see numbers. They want to see what someone at Kennedy School of Government said last week about ‘the strategic triangle’. They’re not really interested in what disruption and innovation may mean, they want to see tangible things. I think for disrupters, innovators, entrepreneurs, you also need to be excellent communicators and have to be able to communicate these ideas in a language they understand.

“Not the language you want to speak to each other, your buzzwords and your fun stuff. Your tech speak. Language that is meaningful to them. Decision makers’ language.”

The best PPPs go unnoticed

O’Connor, a specialist in public-private partnerships, was critical of the lack of new innovative PPPs in recent years.

“What we did do — and we’ve lost that innovation — is the use of PPPs in technology in some really innovative public safety systems, which just work and people don’t even really know about them,” he said, citing Melbourne’s metropolitan police radio system, which was financed, built and delivered by Motorola.

He highlighted the difficulty in building new, high-tech systems over outdated technology, offering as one example another PPP — the mobile data terminals in ambulances and police cars.

“They can only do a couple of functions because the computing back at Victoria Police is unable to allow a police officer to actually enter data on their screen because their old mainframe won’t connect to the very new technology that has been put into the police cars,” O’Connor argued.

He explained the manual work-arounds needed to make up for the inadequacy of the old system.

“You’ve got a situation where a police officer will receive an alert, there’s an event, they’ll go to the event, they’ll resolve the event, whatever it is, they actually then have to hand write the event from the screen on their running sheet, they then have to go back to the station, re-code it for statistical purposes, re-code for overtime purposes, and then they fax it to the central data processing bureau, where a whole lot of people madly type that … into the mainframe, which will then maybe spit out something down the track.

“So the whole information system is broken. But what we have is a powerful two-way computer system built into every police car in metropolitan Melbourne. So the question is — is that a technology issue, or is that a process issue, or is it a people issue? It’s probably more process than people.

“When we talk about disruption and innovation, a new app isn’t necessarily going to change behaviour, attitudes or processes. I think that’s the very hard work that has to occur in the public sector. Sometimes it will be groundbreaking and will actually change things, but I don’t think it’s necessarily magic bullet stuff. There’s a whole lot of boring background work that has to occur before that.”

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