To change economics, we need to change language

If we want to include citizens in local economic plans, we need to communicate differently, says Mike Hawking

Inclusive growth is in vogue. It’s the focus of conversations, conferences, and commissions in economic development discussions across the country.

Defining what inclusive growth looks like is at the heart of this, and often sparks lively debate. At JRF, we’ve set our stall out about what it means to us, but as was shown at our recent conference there are others who view things very differently.

Discussion and debate about what inclusive growth can and should be is good. But there is a danger that in trying to define the technicalities about how to make economic growth work for everyone, we enter into a policy world which is inaccessible and full of jargon.

Finding ways to talk simply and clearly about complex economic issues is a problem faced by politicians and policymakers alike. The political candidate who is able to explain their economic policy simply and coherently is most likely to succeed. But recent years have shown that the politician who is able to transform their economic arguments into messages which connect to voters’ values and identity are onto a real winner.

Language is a barrier to engagement

At JRF, we know that how we talk about poverty can affect how the public respond to our messages. We’re working with the Frameworks Institute to understand this in more detail. The work has highlighted that a lack of clarity among citizens about how the economy works hinders anti-poverty messages. It recommends that we need to do more work to understand how to explain how public policy interventions can change economic relations in ways that can reduce and prevent poverty.

Understanding how to talk more clearly and precisely about economic concepts will require engagement with citizens. There are several existing projects and programmes which are directly relevant. The RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council programme offers citizens the opportunity to debate national economic issues. At a local level, the People’s Plan in Greater Manchester and the work of Citizens UK offer opportunities for citizens to discuss, identify and prioritise economic issues for their area.

JRF and the RSA are currently researching how cities across the world are engaging citizens in developing local inclusive growth strategies. It’s a participatory project that anyone can contribute to. What it’s demonstrating is that there is a real desire for people to contribute to economic decision-making in their area, but the language used as part of the engagement process can be a barrier for some. Getting this right at the start can help ensure the broadest range of citizens feel able to contribute to decision-making.

Creating a compassionate city

Moving inclusive growth, or any type of economic discussion, into the language of culture and identity is not a simple task. That said, there are examples of where places are attempting to do so. Louisville in Kentucky has been named a Model City of Compassion for five years in a row. At the launch of the Compassionate Louisville campaign in 2011, mayor Greg Fisher said:

‘Being a compassionate city is both the right thing and the necessary thing to do to ensure that we take care of all of our citizens. There’s a role for all of us in making sure no one is left behind or goes wanting.’

Louisville is beginning to measure the success of this approach, and has developed a compassionate cities index with the University of Louisville. The index shifts a statement of value into measures that the city’s leadership can be judged on. Other cities have attempted similar values-based leadership approaches, but this is an innovative way of embedding it into the fabric of a city’s policymaking.

Re-thinking how we talk and communicate about inclusive growth is important. If we are to succeed in transferring it from a vague concept written about in policies and reports and into a transformative agenda for national and local leadership it is vital. Listening and learning from citizens forms an important part of that, and cannot be ignored.


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