Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mind your tongue, warns President Higgins

Anna Vissor and President Michael D Higgins at the Advocacy Initiative

President Michael D. Higgins has criticised the use of expressions such as “service users” and “clients” to describe people who interact with community and voluntary sector organisations.

He was speaking at a conference organised on February 13th by a new organisation called the Advocacy Initiative. Since President Higgins delivered a completely different speech to the one written for him and since it isn’t available anywhere else, ‘Changing Ireland’ is pleased to present it. 

Transcription by Conor Hogan.  Youtube embed at the bottom of the page.

Tá an-athas orm bheith ar maidin. I’m very happy to be here, indeed, the process of my speeches now is that I’m becoming ever more dynamic, so I’m changing them as I go along all the time. I’d like to respond indeed to your own quotation of mine over address. The first thing I’d want to say is to wish you well in sharing knowledge. The most useful thing I can do in a few minutes is to offer you a few reactions to your programme as I saw it. 


I went through a list of participants and people who participate in knowledge exchange in the forum, and they are very wide and varied and include organisations dealing with health and policy, others are dealing with issues of international development and poverty and so on. What they have in common, and it’s very interesting, and it’s the whole purpose of the knowledge exchange which I recommend is that people will be able to share strategies, and maybe the first point I want to make is that one can spend a great deal of time at a time of financial uncertainty and financial cutbacks in speaking of the consequences of that, but in a curious way as well there is an opportunity for discussing strategy, for discussing policy, for discussing assumptions and values and getting them in a sharper focus. 

One of the things I might say immediately as I prepared a rather substantial speech, I looked through it and it struck me that there is so many issues in all of this, that flow on if you like. I can only give one inaugural speech, but I’ve given many on the same theme. There are issues that arise about what the whole purpose of all of this might be. I think it’s a good idea to share knowledge and tactics. First thing you’ll notice, and it’s a very Irish thing, if that if something is working for somebody they’ll put a boundary around it. It’s the law of the limited good, if it’s working for you and you share it with everyone it’ll be less effective for you. That’s the first one but there are others as well. Other issues. Serious issues if I might be more provocative – issues of language. 

There is substantial differences at times between the language of the state, the language of the bureaucracy and the language of the voluntary sector. From time-to-time as one looks across the wide spectrum of press releases and so forth, I keep searching for the word citizen, which I use a bit and which I used in my inaugural address, and I find it is quite drowned by references to service users and clients and client bases and so on and so forth. This sets off a little alert in my own mind, that is the language doing the same damage in all of the sectors and isn’t it one of the functions of critical thinking and theory to find an appropriate language to deal with the purposes to which one is pursuing? 

I think therefore to be of use to you in many cases there are really practical things you can do today in sharing information, in sharing and discussing techniques in relation to strategy, and above all else, and what is most important, encouraging solidarity and innovation at a time of cutbacks and diminished financial provision. But it is also a time I think as well for recasting everything about ones involvement, in terms of language which I have already mentioned, but also in terms of structure. I, in my other life as a sociologist, was always struck by the assumption that are there in advocacy and lobbying. 

I spent nearly 30 years between the Dail and Seanad and 19 years in local authority, where groups would come to you trying to change legislation. The Equality Act for example, when the legislation arrives, they kind of paused at that stage for breath. But what they didn’t realise is that what is gained in the legislation could be lost in the administration. So it was matter of pushing on passed that barrier, and looking at the administrative structures in the same critical way that one looked at the desire for the legislation. Equally true in a practical sense, to be persistent, the forms of lobbying and influence for example and the changes in consciousness required differ at every stage of the flow chart from the beginning to the end. There’s a crucial decision.

There’s a decision between decision shapers and decision makers and decision takers. Sometimes the lobbying effort would be entirely around decision takers, where they elected legislators and so forth. But in fact the contours of the argument had already been decided by decision shapers, who were keen critical people within the administrative system, who had constructed the options, and this is an observation I would make not only about the state as a central entity, but the state locally as well. 

Another very favourite word, because words come and go in fashion, is the word partnership. Sometimes the County Managers Association are always wonderful in that, because I think they have a kind of lexicon of ‘words of the year’. So the word ‘de jure’ for a long time meant ‘partnership’. We’ve spent nearly a decade about that. But if you take some of the voluntary groups who are dealing with local authorities, and they come to a meeting about the housing of Travellers or something like that. And you’ll find the version of partnership is that the person who has responsibility for housing has in fact decided on the options and ran them through the system internally before they left for the meeting. And then because you are sitting at the meeting, and the page is like that (holds a piece of paper in his hand) in many cases, but at the end of the day the page is turned and you get what has been decided in advance anyway. 

There are real issues of language and there are real issues of administration and turning it into reality. There’s one of the things that public representatives do as well that is important and that is you should always have a large section of the speech congratulating the audience you are speaking to. Whether it is the Tidy Towns or something like that, you congratulate the audience that the horses aren’t in the gardens, windows aren’t broken and things like that. Then you kind of leave to rapturous applause. I’ve actually moved on from that myself because, as some might say, I’m running out of time. 

But I do think, and I what I would suggest is worth discussing as well is that Catherine McGuinness, a long time go, produced a wonderful paper on how the balance of the relationship between the state, the voluntary sector and civil society should still remain. For example, much of the formal pressure on the state, and correctly so thanks to freedom of information and other things, is to try and make the state transparent and accountable. But equally in the same way, if you move away from the regulation of the state, it’s important that people in NGOs and the voluntary sector be transparent as well. And be accountable and in fact actually implement and deliver the standards for themselves and those who work with them that they are looking for from the state. 

It has always struck me myself as well, and I looked deliberately through the list this morning to see the people who are involved, is that people burn out. And it is important that this time as well that in places where you have only one, two, three or four people working together that it be acknowledged that you cannot forever keep drawing on the well of endless energy and so forth. And it is part of the human relationships that are important in any particular time. That people allow for that. And again, it is something upon which as you said, correctly said, that when you are exchanging knowledge and solidarity and what have you, you’ll have so many good ideas yourself. 

John McGahern wrote a long time ago, that the problem in Ireland was that people felt they had to chose between the family and the state, when in fact they needed both. The discussion that is going on now about the state and civil society is a strange one all over Europe. I’m speaking next week in London about this at the LSE. One of the things about it is that there are models – it’s as if in fact there has been a loss in confidence in the state altogether, to some extent, and as well as that you have other options that are being developed, radical options, suggesting we can begin all over again in a communitarian idealistic way, other options saying that there are different versions of the civil society. 

The fact is that all of your organisations as I looked on them have to deal with both the state, civil society and communities. There is where there is a richness of experience across the organisations that are dealing with things differently because they have had a different range of problems. There is a great opportunity there. It is a difficult time, but it is a time that we have to get passed. There are possibilities in really sharp thinking. Real possibilities in sharing information, possibilities in focussing, strategy, in the good things that I claim as well. I think it’s important to turn the language around. The language that is there in a Weberian bureaucracy, providing services for them – there are loads of assumptions in that. 

And I think civil society has to lift itself into a language of citizenship. And therefore, it is not merely idealistic to speak of a rights based approach to the provision of services. That in itself is based on a philosophical assumption of the worth of the person you are dealing with. That requires a different language. It requires a language of the heart as well as a language of the head. And it is one of the greatest problems we have all over Europe about the way in which the citizenship agenda hasn’t emerged. 

It is a difficult time, there is no point in me listing it out again. We have emigration, large scale unemployment, poverty, people traumatised by a collapse in expectations and so forth. And I think as well as the former president of a soccer club, Galway United (throws his eyes up to Heaven), the fact of the matter is that the funding from the state is much more difficult for many of you relying on philanthropy as well. That is why there is such a great value in you getting together, so as to be smart about it all. Someone once said that knowledge exchange is in fact the ability to recruit smart people and getting them to talk to one another. But the fact of the matter is that I do think there are issues that can be discussed. I so wish you well in them. 

I think there are issues as well that arise in relation to things that were never faced in Ireland, that did arise in England and which there was kind of a good debate about. And that is the relationship between the social worker and the care worker. In the case of the British system for example, the social worker was somebody who spoke out of the state, making provision, the state centrally and locally. The care worker, on the other hand, was somebody who was coming from the agitational version of the need and its collective expression. And they were expected to sit across the table from each other, and hammer each other. One person representing the machine, the other person representing the human need, the blood and the necessity of it all and so forth. We can’t afford that really now. The argument should move on. That people must be at this stage moving on. 

Academics in some cases, as I look through the books to what has happened to the writing on social policy, from Professor Titmuss’s time on, is that there is a notion in many cases, and I’m ending on this because I’ve gone on too long, is that there is a single version or a script towards which everyone must now respond. That is not necessarily so. I’m ending where I began. There is a real debate to take place about what inclusive citizenship is. There is a real debate to take place about what the relationship of the state to civil society is. There is a real debate about how they are to speak to each other. There is a real debate in which how in fact citizens to which it’s all addressed, might receive messages and send messages. All of these are very real issues. 

I think constructive advocacy strategies must take account of that. But there are some core principals as well. There is not one single version of social policy which is called austerity and responding to austerity. There is a debate about the rights that citizens might expect. There are versions of social policy as to whether one is talking about a rights-based social policy that has some kind of equality as its aim, some kind of equality, and there is a debate within that as to whether it is equality of opportunity or equality in relation to participation. 

Then there is a vision of those who suggest, in many cases, there’s kind of, if you like, a meritocratic version of social policy. And that is those who have saved, and those who have contributed at a certain stage of their life, are entitled to certain types of guarantees. And then there is another version, which is a residual version of social policy. And that is that everybody can be allowed to sink until economic growth returns, and after that we will have something to spend in relation to rescuing people. 

These are not idol speculations. These are choices, they are debates. And I think when they are out of the way in many cases, it’s that ‘look, we are where we are’. And there will be information to be exchanges and strategic tactics and so forth. And I think that it is great that they will be changed. (Fiddling around with pieces of paper) I am now getting rid of the stuff that is quite useless to me. (The audience laughs) 

I wish you well. Later on this year, the seminar will be taking place. A working group is being established this week or next week about being young in Ireland. That will be of interest to many of you. Next year them seminar that I will try to get going is one on ethics. Because ethics is important. In the end of the day, it should be the departure point of all of our planning. Let me end by saying this, the good news is if you were about 14 months on the road like I was, I met a lot of communities. And one of the most interesting and exciting things is that people are talking to each other as citizens. Even though they are not calling it that. 

There are communities coming together, people not lying down under the weight of huge problems. They’re doing innovative things with gardens, innovative things in planning together employment strategies. And it’s all very positive. There are new shoots, and I believe those shoots are there to be developed. And if you have exchange of information in the new technology environment you have now, and in many cases look after each other, in terms of the demand on people up to the point at which they get worn out. We are not born to have a life cycle that is entirely cheerful. There are times in all our lives where the burden is very heavy. It’s very important people think about the strategies, how do you handle that in a small voluntary group? 

My message to you today is that I hope you find the resilience, wisdom, and the generosity and the solidarity that so many of you are practicing every day in what you are doing to deal with the remanence of what was a very fallacious version of the connection between economy and society. But the good thing is that it is all there to be created. You are making a very great start and I very much applaud, very much support and wish you well in all of this. I will be watching the new forms of advocacy and language that will emerge. Thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. I can't say I read every word, but I think I get it. What our President is saying is we have to start by listening, properly to each other, and as to beginning at the outset by looking at our ethics, then yes, he is right there for sure. So much of what goes on in every day life is unethical, often it is just that no one really gave it much thought and now it [ whatever] has becomes embedded into the culture of the institution/ organisation that people carry on behaving unethically without even thinking about it, in ignorance. It doesn't have to be like that, he is right, we need critical awareness and critical thinking, we need to start asking questions, but it needn't be all doom and gloom, we can also envision what kind of society we as citizens would like.
    And ok maybe it it might take a bit of time for people to develop their citizenry, we could start looking out for a role model. There is no reason why Ireland can't be a leader, a role model for others to follow, in how to be a good/great citizen.

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