Magazine article Policy & Practice

Britain: Same Language, Different Meaning

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Britain: Same Language, Different Meaning

Article excerpt

In the autumn of 2000, my company, Electronic Data Systems, sent me to work with the British government on a national human service transformation program to modernize social welfare and benefits services and to improve the delivery of critical policy outcomes.


When I arrived in Britain, I felt as prepared as one can be when entering a new situation. I had studied the projects and participated in early consulting assignments. I brought with me some 30 years in the public and private sectors, including a stint as acting commissioner for the Department of Human Services in Minnesota. But, as I discovered while participating in what ended up being two major government transformation projects over four years, I had to learn new approaches as I encountered fresh challenges, while discovering a whole new vocabulary along the way. Now that I'm stateside again, I've found several of these lessons to be invaluable.

Different Culture

No matter how much I had prepared, there was no avoiding feeling initially unsettled at being immersed in a different culture and occupied with a human service environment new to me. Oscar Wilde observed that "The Americans are identical to the British in all aspects except, of course, language." More than a century later, I found this to be still true. Simply understanding one another proved more challenging than expected. Sometimes a word would have a vastly different, or even an opposite, meaning. The first time I suggested that we "table" a discussion and proceeded to change the subject, it was obvious that something was wrong. To my colleagues, tabling an idea meant bringing it up for immediate dialogue.

After a few incidents like this, I learned to listen closely to what was being said--not only to the words, but to the context and tenor of the discussion. This is something that many of us in the human service field learn as part of our training, but the language differences I encountered reinforced the importance of active listening in "back office" contexts too. Just as we're trained not to hear a partial statement from a client and assume we understand the rest, it's just as important not to take for granted that we follow a colleague's perspective, whether it has to do with business changes, system requirements, payment processes or anything else, without knowing for sure.

Ambitious Goals

In the late 1990s, the new Labour government had set challenging goals to modernize government services in general and human services in particular. The cumulative effect of the simultaneous changes taking place across government was ambitious and historic.

The two agencies where I worked were massive organizations that interact with the widest cross-section of the citizenry, involved in individuals' lives from cradle to grave. One was the agency responsible for a broad spectrum of human services on a national level, from welfare and employment services to pensioners' benefits similar to our Social Security. Unlike program funding and management in the United States, in Britain these services are fully funded and administered on a national level. The second agency had traditionally been focused on nationwide revenue collection; however, it was becoming newly responsible for distributing beneficiary payments related to a large-scale national effort aimed at drastically reducing child poverty.

In order to open more channels of service to citizens, a prime ministerial mandate set in motion processes to bring every possible government service online by 2005. To make these channels work logically and efficiently, it made sense to renovate or replace old data systems that didn't lend themselves to web-based media. In addition, to fully integrate these new channels into agencies' operations and maximize efficiency in government, new business processes needed to be designed and departments needed to be reorganized and retooled. …

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