I have been thinking a lot about how we communicate bad news, prompted in part by the NHS Direct stories over this weekend.
People always claim to be able to remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. For an earlier generation it was where they heard Chamberlain declare that our country was at war with Germany. Life-changing, history-making news in each case. For many in the public service the months since the formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government have provided new and unwelcome announcements that will change their lives too. Each person affected will, I am sure, remember exactly where they were when they heard the news.
Of course we all deal with bad news in different ways and find our own ways of coping with it. But a golden rule that I learnt from my primary school Headteacher was to always treat others as I would want to be treated. Sadly, the government, its hangers-on and its supporters seem to have been away from school the day that lesson was taught.
A succession of organisations have heard about their abolition barely ahead of the news being leaked to reliable journalists who seem to do most of their work slavishly repeating what they’ve been told or what they read in government news releases. Many thousands of decent hard-working public servants have heard in the media that their jobs are to go. Just think about that for just one moment and try to imagine how that feels.
From a clear blue sky you find the future that you planned and worked for has been taken away. No consultation. No debate. it’s suddenly over. Not only that your family hears this news from the media first too. You have no chance to prepare the way, no possibility of softening the blow by at least telling them yourself first. Instead you get a call from your worried mother asking what’s going on. Or you have to comfort and reassure children who, for the first time, begin to understand how fragile the world really is.
I am not, of course, arguing that change in public services is not necessary. I promised that this would not turn into a political blog and I mean to keep to that. But what I am saying is that surely a test of any competent employer is how they communicate bad news. While the government may not like it, it is inescapably true that it is, in practice, the final employer of all the public servants now finding themselves heading towards redundancy.
So in the weeks, months and years ahead could I suggest that instead of communicating to public servants via the media ministers have the good grace and good manners to tell affected employees the bad news first.