Politicians need a good lesson in window dressing

Posted on 21/07/2011


Rory Bremner writes for the Financial Times. True, he does. And he’s pretty insightful.

One comment in last week’s column stood out:

In the UK, the difference between government and opposition can be summed up thus: for the coalition, George Osborne says we can’t have growth without cutting the deficit; for the opposition, Ed Balls says we can’t cut the deficit without having growth. And that’s it. For the rest, it’s just window-dressing and grandstanding.

Which begs the question, if window dressing is so important, why aren’t politicians better at it?

Politicians have mastered grandstanding, as the recent hackgate scandal has vividly demonstrated. They continually ride (and sometimes leap over) the fine line between being overly sanctimonious and showing humility.

But, window-dressing is still a mystery.  And it is vital the current crop get better at it.

The government’s farcical abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance is proof in point.

There was little argument from Tory and Lib Dem benches that the EMA needed to be reformed, but even the Tory chairman of the Education Select Committee commented reform was:

Rushed and ill-thought through

The Committee rightly pointed out that the announced abolition and then the delay in confirming new support measures had happened:

Far too late to allow Year 11 students to make fully informed decisions [about courses for next year]

As someone who was closely involved in the communications programme for the original EMA scheme, I know there is plenty of evidence within the Department for Education that this would have been the case.

When EMA was launched, tracking research which measured the effectiveness of the PR and marketing, clearly demonstrated how long it took for messages about the new scheme (which had been heavily tested and piloted) to permeate to the relevant target audiences. It wasn’t quick and along the way the campaign had to be continually refined in response to data and consumer feedback about the barriers to take up – and staying on in education after 16.

If this intelligence was not passed on to ministers before making their decision to swiftly abolish EMA, without thinking about how to introduce the replacement, it should have been. If it was, and ignored, ministers need to be held to account for it.

As this government is now learning, policies rushed out for a quick headline, without thought to how they will be ‘window dressed’ and presented to the public are often crippled from birth.

The Big Society is just another example.  And, of course, this is not to say Labour are much better. But I’ve said quite enough about Ed Miliband recently!

In fact, I’d go as far to say that window dressing is not just a vastly vital part of British politics, but it is too important to leave to the politicians.