Bureau administratie
Bureau administratie

The role of language in government errors

Language plays a bigger role than we think in government errors, according to researcher Harrie van Rooij who will defend his PhD dissertation at Radboud University on 8 February. In government institutions, issues are often deemed unproblematic, despite the presence of unresolved internal tensions.

When Harrie van Rooij started his PhD research, themes such as gas extraction, government benefits and youth welfare were not yet daily news. Yet the PhD candidate, who also works as a communications consultant for the national government, observed a growing sense of unease about the relationship between government and citizens. “Complex laws and regulations and tedious interactions with government agencies were leaving citizens feeling frustrated.”

Van Rooij examined how internal communication and communication professionals influenced these tensions. Communications consultants communicate with the outside world, but also offer internal advice on how to explain policy choices. For his research, Van Rooij interviewed employees at the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration. He also studied the communication flows within this organisation by analysing intranet messages, reports, speeches and meetings.

The self-sufficient citizen

Van Rooij took a close look at the idea of the 'self-sufficient citizen', which for decades formed the basis of social policies. Self-sufficiency proved to be a malleable concept that could be used to justify many measures, such as the budget cuts implemented in various service sectors in 2015.

“For instance, a large group of citizens were labelled ‘self-sufficient help-seekers’, which means they couldn’t do their own taxes but they could ask for help from friends and family or consult the website of the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration for support,” explains Van Rooij. “By repeating it again and again, you make asking for help part of self-sufficiency, whereas it could also mean the opposite. The analyses show that through language, organisations sometimes maintain an overly optimistic view. In this case, the concepts of vulnerability and dependency were pushed to the background.

Discussing tensions

Government organisations experience tensions. Internally, parties are divided or have different interests, which come to light in conversations and texts. But instead of encouraging an open dialogue about this, organisations tend to make light of the situation through language. Documents make it seem as if everything is under control and everyone is on the same page.

Spokespeople and communications consultants are often criticised for allegedly twisting the truth to protect government officials. According to Van Rooij, however, this doesn’t paint the full picture. “Many communication professionals in fact want to create a culture of openness, but this can be difficult in times of crisis. At such times, government officials want to keep things calm and convey mainly the ‘key messages’ to avoid making mistakes or hurting feelings. This is not the work of well-versed spin doctors or other individuals, it’s a collective process. Interactions throughout the organisation produce key messages that create the illusion that all is well. The result of this process is secrecy.”

Tunnel vision

Ultimately, this creates a myopic view, explains the researcher. “Problems are ignored because the official government stance is that all is well. To escape this tunnel vision, you have to actively seek out different perspectives. For example, government officials should regularly meet with citizens and systematically implement the feedback they receive.”

Finally, according to Van Rooij, communication professionals should focus more on the social processes in an organisation instead of exclusively on producing information. “In many cases, employees don’t really hear each other, which further increases tensions. Communication professionals should recognise these patterns and help facilitate the right conversations, which includes creating room for the employees to express their feelings.”

Contact information

For further information, please contact Harrie van Rooij via hjm.van.rooij [at] casema.nl (hjm[dot]van[dot]rooij[at]casema[dot]nl) or team Science communication via +31 24 361 6000 or media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl).

Media & Communication, Society