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All about listening: the lie public organisations tell themselves

Last week the South Australian government announced the completion of a civic reform that divides many a community: how motorists and cyclists can share the road. The result of SA’s citizen jury process, the changed law coming into effect later this month is exceptional for being among the few examples where new public policy was crafted in an environment where government spoke less than the community.

That makes it very rare according to the latest research by Professor Jim Macnamara, the UTS professor of public communication who recently completed an international study of organisational listening involving 36 case studies in Australia, Britain and the United States.

“On average, 80% of organisational resources devoted to public communication are focussed on speaking instead of listening.”

Government organisations, like their private sector counterparts, like to claim they practice two-way communication and engagement. Macnamara’s research instead found on average, 80% of organisational resources devoted to public communication are focussed on speaking instead of listening. This was reflected in both policy and service delivery agencies, where communication and its various synonyms was overwhelmingly constrained to one-way dissemination of messages, even on social media.

Even the best cases Macnamara found were only 60% speaking, 40% listening. He says the rarity of actual listening could be said to be a “crisis of listening in contemporary societies”.

When organisations did listen, it was largely to serve their own interests. Of the four main ways organisation listening occurred in the case studies — customer relations, research, social media monitoring and public consultation — the actual listening was often compromised. Macnamara found:

  • Customer relations management is increasingly used to placate rather than adapt to meet their needs.
  • Research is used to identify populist opinion to help governments manage daily headlines and win elections.
  • Social media analysis is primarily conducted to identify influencers and jump on opportunities for spreading the organisation’s message.
  • Public consultations still primarily listen to the “the usual suspects” resulting in no change to plans, policies or projects.

Why listen?

Low trust, hung parliaments and radicalisation of youth in otherwise stable peaceful democracies, suggest citizens are disillusioned with institutionalised politics and governments, Macnarama notes. Earlier studies found the issues most talked about by politicians and reported in media do not align with citizens’ major concerns. Macnamara says that agencies can take away the wrong message from this:

“A common assumption is ‘if they are informed they will think as we do’.”

“If stakeholders and publics do not support, or are in conflict with an organisation and its policies and actions, public communication practitioners see this most often as a result of those groups and individuals not being adequately informed. A common assumption is ‘if they are informed they will think as we do’.”

This, of course, leads to even less listening and more broadcasting.

Macnamara, at a presentation of his findings for the local launch of WPP’s government and public sector practice in Sydney this week, warned that listening without an appropriate response can be worse than not listening at all.

Kathryn Cooper
Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper, who heads up the new Australian and New Zealand branch of the government and public sector practice, says while “everyone is talking about listening”, nobody is really doing it perfectly and there is a lot still to be learned.

“We do a lot of campaign based listening, but it’s rare that we have a platform to listen on a particular topic or area,” says Cooper.

“That’s part of the challenge too, how do you think just beyond the current 12-week campaign we might be in market with, and establish a longer-term conversation. That poses a lot of challenge around resourcing. It’s not enough to just hear what’s being said, you’ve also got to play back what you’re doing with what you’ve heard.”

Models of organisational listening

Macnamara has been developing a framework for organisational listening during his international study, and has been invited back to UK’s Number 10 for a second phase of the study where he’ll get the opportunity to try out some of his ideas.

There are also many simple mechanism that agencies can use right now to encourage genuine engagement. Citizen juries, like those run in South Australia are one model, as well as pop up “listening post” consultation booths and community liaison officers.

A culture and policies for listening in an organisation were needed all the way to the top. These should be specific directives on who is to be listened to and how listening is to be conducted, not broad philosophical statements, Macnarama urged.

He also had a message that should resonate with public servants: “Not listening to someone is itself an overtly political act.”

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.