NOEL TURNBULL. The Morrison Government tries to get empathetic

The Morrison Government’s is trying a new ploy – one which is beyond even the wildest satirical imagination. It has hired an empathy consultant.

As the Federal Government slashes departmental staff, sheds policy expertise and makes it explicit that they want public servants to do what they are told rather than think there is one group of people loving it – consultants – and now the consulting hordes include an empathy specialist.

If you are a consultant and want to get rich there are a number of ways to do so: be close to a Minister or someone in a Minister’s office; get passed on from department to department; and, or dream up some fashionable or ostensibly original idea, process or program.

But this Morrison Government consultancy says more about it than any consultancy could say about itself.

Back in November last year it was revealed in Senate Estimates that the $10 billion Inland Rail project had employed a consultant to help them become more empathetic; help develop the Department of Infrastructure’s “social licence strategy” including getting “the tone of voice right and getting the narrative right” in dealings with landowners along the route of the proposed Barnaby Joyce rail boondoggle.

The only slightly retro element in this litany was the once ubiquitous, ‘narrative’, which should have died in May 2019 along with Bill Shorten’s election campaign. But nevertheless it’s not often that you get so much managerial, consulting and bureaucratic babble all in one place at the one time.

For a while it was rumoured that the Government had hired a consultancy to teach the Prime Minister empathy but that was clearly not true, nor was it just another failed consultancy, and the true story was outed in the newspapers – like Prince – formerly known as Fairfax and now known as Nine network plus some masthead brands.

The Department hired the consultancy, Futureye, whose managing director Katherine Teh, is a former journalist. The company website says: “In 2002 she founded Futureye, providing market research and innovative solutions for the development and management of public policy, risk communication, strategic planning, dealing with change and community expectations.

“Katherine’s unique social licence to operate methodology and revelatory problem-solving systems of analysis are successful. These processes have helped organisations that are facing shifting community beliefs and confidence, and rapid, transitory communications.

“Futureye has successfully improved the corporate responsibility of and, importantly, the perception of corporate responsibility for a broad range of industries, including: food, water, energy, mining and pharmaceuticals.

“Katherine and her team have worked at many and varied levels, from worksites, to national and international supply chains, helping organisations and businesses identify and deal with outrage triggers, and competently handle the challenges of reputation, sustainable development, political ramifications, regulatory threat and technical complications.”

The team skills also include: “risk and crisis management and communications, community and stakeholder engagement, change management, proactive issues management, sustainability, biodiversity, corporate responsibility, futures analysis, psychology, sociology, media and human rights.

Putting aside the fact that only the desire to bring about world peace is missing from all this it is useful to deconstruct what all the rest might actually mean.

First, in the glorious days back in the 19th century when accountants, lawyers and bankers put their own names on the brass plate as a sort of guarantee of responsibility there was some point in this sort of branding. How that evolved and can end up, however, can be seen in the Lehman trilogy of plays. Now, however, someone needs a name suitably trendy, apparently profound and able to be sustained for a few years before some new branding concept arrives. Moreover, if some of the principals leave you can stagger along for a while as they dream up some new fashionable brand for their new competitive entity.

Second, social licence is a relatively recent-ish iteration of corporate social responsibility. Various definitions of it have been used such as: “The Social License has been defined as existing when a project has the ongoing approval within the local community and other stakeholders, ongoing approval or broad social acceptance and, most frequently, as ongoing acceptance.” Also: “The social license to operate (SLO), or simply social license, refers to the ongoing acceptance of a company or industry’s standard business practices and operating procedures by its employees, stakeholders, and the general public.”

Social licence is also closely linked to the question of trust as the assumption is that the community grants the social licence because it trusts the people and/or company involved.

Third, Ms Teh offers her version of social licence as ‘unique’. As a former journalist she must been told at least once by an old-fashioned sub editor that unique has a very special and precise meaning. In fact KPMG and a host of others offer social licence expertise and in KPMG’s case produced a major report on the subject for the AICD in 2018.

The author also undertook a major literature search on the subject for an industry group more than a decade ago and turned up enough reports and details of consultancies in the field to fill a filing cabinet. The bibliography alone was extremely large. Ms Teh’s approach may well be unique but one would want to see some concrete evidence of how it was different from all these other approaches to be totally convinced.

Fourth, echoing the once fashionable concept of perception management (adopted by the PR company, Burson Marsteller, at one time in the past with no apologies for stealing Umberto Eco’s concept of perception shaping reality) Ms Teh emphasises how her consultancy work improves “the perception of corporate responsibility.” Perceptions are great but even the late Eco would admit that Samuel Johnson had a valid point when he refuted Bishop Berkeley by kicking the stone.

Ms Teh’s CV is very impressive and her community contributions are very significant. As her company charged the Department of Infrastructure almost $200,000 it may also be very successful and profitable.

But the perception of the whole affair wasn’t that great when the contract was examined by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Legislation Committee and Labor’s Senator Murray Watt said: “It tells you a lot that Scott Morrison’s government needs to hire consultants to help them ‘develop empathy’ ”. A perception management problem of the first order indeed.

And while the rumour about the PM is untrue it is perhaps a pity that he doesn’t get some empathy training from Futureye. Perhaps Futureye could even get the former Australian Bankers’ Association CEO, who is among the company’s consultants, to take on the job?

After all, as Juvenal said of an age such as this: difficile est saturam non scribere (it was hard not to write satire).

Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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