David Cameron has been insisting that his Government is listening over public views of his proposed changes to the National Health Service. It signals a leader who is prepared to learn while introducing change. So why does he appear to be in trouble politically over his plans?
The listening leader
The story of the listening leader was captured this week [April 7th, 2011] as the Prime Minister used a meeting with NHS professionals to convey two different messages one to the immediate gathering and the other to wider audiences outside the room. We have an example here of the dilemmas facing a leader dealing with such ambiguities.
One news account describes ‘David Cameron’s desperate bid to save his dreaded NHS reforms’ :
The dreaded reforms
David Cameron yesterday launched a desperate bid to convince voters his floundering NHS plans were needed. At a hastily-arranged “listening exercise”, the PM vowed to make changes to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s botched proposals. But he ruled out scrapping the potentially disastrous shake-up.
Mr Cameron hauled bungling Mr Lansley and Deputy PM Nick Clegg along to the Q&A at a hospital, [using] the event to publicly humiliate Mr Lansley – chiding him for “charging ahead” with the shake-up without public support. He faces accusations from a number of medical experts that the reforms would devastate the NHS. His proposals would see GPs given control of much of the budget and the NHS would also be opened up to greater competition.
“I hear what you say”
Managers accused of being poor listeners develop the (irritating) verbal tic of uttering the words “I hear what you say”. Listeners sometimes fill in the dots and assume this means “You can say what you like, as long as you don’t expect me to agree with you“.
“I see where you are coming from”
A similar and more recent expression heard in media discussions and chat shows is “I see where you are coming from”. Like “I hear what you say” the words attempt to avoid conflict and may not always be successful. Here’s what Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary retorted when asked to comment:
“If the Prime Minister is serious about listening rather than PR spin, people will expect root and branch changes to his NHS plans.”
Listening and beyond
A major policy initiative always risks initial resistance at least part because of the difficulty in communicating more than a few broad elements to a wide set of audiences with different concerns.
As we have seen above the dilemma is how to accept that plans have to be modified without appearing to ‘flip-flop’ (an accusation aimed at politicians who are seen as changing their intentions). Dilemmas crop up when leaders face hard to resolve decisions. Creativity is often called for to avoid the most obvious and unpalatable actions. David Cameron may not have found enough creativity to go with his undoubted conviction politics on this occasion.