The cow on the line

A very long time ago, I used to commute into London from a long way out. Sometimes at the end of the working day, I’d find all the trains back home severely delayed or cancelled. Usually, there was little or no information about what was going on, and I would stand there feeling stressed, powerless and just a little bit angry. Apart from out-and-out physical harm, there’s nothing a homo sapiens likes less than uncertainty. 

On one occasion, though, it was announced that the delays were due to a cow on the line at Dover. Suddenly my mind had a narrative with which to explain the situation. I had been told the facts, and I could rationalise and explain what was going on around me. It didn’t matter that the cow explanation was a little bizarre – it was truthful, and that in turn meant dramatically reduced stress levels. 

In the broader context, the cow on the line means ‘telling it like it is’, however uncomfortable the situation might be. You would rather know that the bad thing happening to you is down to the cow than having no explanation at all, or worse still, let your imagination run riot about things that aren’t actually happening. 

Which brings me to the latest Government guidance on Covid tiering. Its recipients, the general public, are struggling to make sense of some of it. Of course, putting together the rule book is a mammoth, unenviable and thankless task, and there will always be some specific set of circumstances that hasn’t been considered, particularly when it comes to cross-tier interactions. But setting out the rules is one thing; explaining them, another.

This is particularly true of hospitality. People are wondering why haircuts are possible, but having a pint in your local isn’t. The rule about pubs and bars only being allowed to open if customers have a ‘substantial meal’ has led some people to question, somewhat tongue in cheek, whether substantial meals themselves have an inoculating effect. Of course, this misunderstands the thinking, and my best guess (corroborated by experts I’ve heard on the radio) is that people sitting down to a meal behave differently to drinkers milling around; the latter have more potential to super-spread. It’s possible I’ve missed it, but it’s difficult to find anywhere where this is explained by an official source. 

There’s a very good podcast in which the Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, Professor Heidi Larson, says that the best way of dealing with anti-vaxx sentiment is by the public health community ‘learning how to talk to people of different views’, rather than just telling people what to do. As I argued in an earlier blog, I think the same applies across the broader sphere of public policy. 

Some pubs, including our own, splendid local, aren’t naturally configured to serve ‘substantial meals’, but have gone to immense effort and expense to ensure that they are Covid-safe. They’re now crestfallen to be facing renewed restrictions. They need someone to listen to them, sympathetically and in an engaged fashion, and at the very least explain what this is all about.

Time for the Government to be a bit clearer about the cow on the line?

9 thoughts on “The cow on the line

  1. Very clever analogy, Roger. You are of course using the metaphor of the cow, because the Latin word for cow, “vacca”, is the root word for vaccine. Positively genius.

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    1. I confess I completely missed that connection, Laurence. On the other hand, I’ve discovered over the years that I seem to be able to pun with no conscious knowledge that I’m doing so – the strange workings of the human brain, eh? – so maybe I should claim credit after all…

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  2. Thoughtful as ever. Decision-makers often have a heightened sense that the most painful truths on adverse circumstances could cause fear and then panic. But in March and April fear of the reasonable worst case of deaths seemed to lead at least for some weeks to public discipline rather than panic (aside from some silly bulk buying of toilet rolls). Candour on policy choices tends to have a different quality from reporting adverse circumstances though. There can often be a mix of economic, political, social, medical-scientific and pragmatic policy delivery factors that interplay in those choices. They do so usually in quite complex ways that defy easy explanations especially when the risks of adverse consequences are quite finely balanced with the intended benefits. The culmination is judgment informed by an intuitive sense. The less likely that there is an obviously and enduringly right answer could well make some decision-makers more reticent to expose all their thinking and the inherent messiness of policy (which you know about all too well). But clarity in exposition can be achieved despite a topic’s complexity and great care taken in the ways we present allows us to avoid unhelpful generalisations or trivialising – nuance is valuable and often better accepted than some would assume. Pace, pressure and high stakes make none of this easy. I am not sure why anyone would think our toughest policy-making and its communication would be easy – it rarely has been in my experience not least with our old friend opportunity cost. I look forward to more of your blogs to stimulate debate.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Struan. I agree of course on the inherent messiness of policy, and the challenges of explaining the multiple and interconnected factors that often inform it. As I said in my first blog, Reflections from a Career, the business of government is difficult. In this case, policy manifests itself at a local level with very direct impact on individual lives, and I don’t think it would take much to have a link from the rule, for example, into a short explanation of the thinking behind it. There must be thinking behind it, or else it wouldn’t be a rule. As you’ll appreciate, I have every sympathy with the officials striving to make the best of this difficult situation, so this isn’t a criticism of their efforts. But I do think going the extra yard, not even mile, in explaining the thinking behind a policy with such direct impact would help build confidence in Government decision-making.

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  3. Roger – I know so well your powerlessness/ cow on the line scenario, both as a commuter across London and (an altogether higher-stakes proposition) from London to the Midlands, over the years; but also as an employee in a large and complex organisation with a mixed record on getting across the what & the why on change to its purportedly most important asset, its People (AKA ‘Resources’). 
    My thought on the public information side of COVID is that this is an unprecedented communication proposition in that it is wholesale behavioural, 100% reactive (not a political or ministerial agenda), led by science and medical, and planetary in scale. Much as I respect the ability of my colleagues in the Government Communication Service, I would suggest that this is likely to remain a challenging Development Opportunity for some time to come. 
    However, back to the organisation to which I allude above: At any one point in time, it has not just an adventurous cow, but a person under a train, leaves on the line, signals failure, IT network issues, a landslide, and a litany of conflicting bright ideas from ambitious senior leaders and/or external consultants about what to do about these things – some in isolation, some in aggregate. Staff are subjected to commendable Engagement initiatives about what they think & feel about the combined impact of the cow, the person, the leaves, the signals, the landslide, and the bright ideas, with little to no knowledge about any of them. So the sense of powerless that you mention endures, and becomes hard-baked into the culture and standard practice around how change is managed and delivered. The question of whether, when and how to state simply the bald facts of the cow et al is itself so fraught with politics, conflicting views, and multiple senior level sign-offs, that it never actually happens. The less, perhaps, that the passengers know, the easier the act of coaxing the cow off the line. Except that somehow without the passengers pressuring for results, the cow remains firmly in place, chewing calmly, unaware of any discontent she may be causing.

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    1. Hi, Walter. A lot of us share that particular commuting pain! You’re right that this is at the top end of the list of challenges for Government communicators, and they have my sympathy. For what it’s worth, I think the way the Covid rules are laid out is by and large reasonably clear, and it would be unrealistic to assume there was an algorithm that could somehow address every individual circumstance. On the issue of communicating initiatives within organisations, I believe strongly that leaders need to engage with staff, genuinely listen, then do something about it. I don’t believe in keeping things from staff and then springing it on them – you can’t take things forward without buy-in. As you say, corporate messaging can all too often founder on either ineffective consultation or workforce incomprehension.

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  4. I think it was Edgar Buckley who said to me that the civil servant’s most important skill was to be able to explain a complex or obscure subject to the general public (via Ministers or directly) in terms that they would be able to understand. I think we lost sight of that idea some time in the 1990s. On a less serious note, you might be interested to know that a Brighton pub has announced it is going to sell a new draught beer which it has named “a substantial meal”.

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    1. That’s what I’ve always understood to be at the heart of the policy professional’s skillset, Richard. Taking complexity and explaining it in terms which, while being true to the complexity, make the issue comprehensible to the lay reader. As for the Brighton pub, you have to respect the innovative mindset!

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  5. A very quick additional comment here with some relevance to the post. The Government’s newly published guidance on what to expect from a Covid vaccination is causing some confusion on social media:

    “Can you give COVID-19 to anyone if you have had the vaccine?
    The vaccine cannot give you COVID-19 infection, and a full course will reduce your chance of becoming seriously ill. We do not yet know whether it will stop you from catching and passing on the virus, but we do expect it to reduce this risk. So, it is still important to follow the guidance in your local area to protect those around you.”

    I guess the issue is that many people don’t understand that the vaccine helps you fight coronavirus once it’s in the body and thereby prevents development of the disease, Covid-19. If anyone reading this is working on Covid comms, or knows someone who is, please try to get the wording finessed!

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