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19 May

Boaty says: ‘Ask me something I want to influence’

By Jonny Gifford, CIPD.

The story of Boaty McBoatface has caught the attention of many since it blew up a rather lovely storm in spring. It clearly tells us something about ‘voice’ but the discussion I’ve seen has, in my opinion, missed the most important lesson.

For those of you who it passed by, here’s the story in a nutshell. To raise public interest in its new £200m Royal Research Ship, the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) let the general public decide its name. An open call for online suggestions, voted for with an open online poll. It went viral and gained international media coverage, it’s fair to say, not because of inherent interest in research vessels, but for the fact that joke names were topping the list. In the end, ‘RRS Boaty McBoatface’ won by a mile, with 124,109 votes. Even ‘RRS It’s Bloody Cold Here’, with 10,679 votes, beat the sensible option of ‘RRS Sir David Attenborough’ with 10,284.

Cue debates on the Great British Sense of Humour versus the inability of this shallow generation to give things due respect; and on whether Nerc should opt for a respectable name or respect the decision it had handed the public. On 6 May, Nerc announced its decision, which didn’t coincide with the vox populi. David Attenborough got the honour, although Boaty McBoatface will be a remote control submarine on board the RRS. I suspect all publicity is good publicity, the public’s had its fun, Nerc has raised its profile and when they come out, viewing figures for the first images sent back by Boaty should be pretty good.

What’s missing is the reason why the public responded to this particular poll as it did – in a way that was either just plain frivolous, or satirical, trying through the mask of frivolity to make a serious point. It’s not a case of ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer, but it is clear that the offer – name the boat – was not important or meaningful enough in the eyes of many.

We live in an age where there is a cult of Voice. Everyone wants to hear our views, from toiletry manufacturers to government. Or at least, they say they do. We often sense they aren’t really that interested, as they set such narrow parameters, reducing our potential influence to tinkering round the edges. There was no public consultation on whether to spend £200m on a research ship, for example. We may also suspect that above hearing our views, the real driver of consultation is to pique our interest in someone’s product. So we think ‘I don’t have time for this’, or perhaps ‘Let’s have some fun and make a point’.

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Employee Enragement - Simon HeathCartoon: Simon Heath

If that sounds cynical, bear with me a moment and let me compare it to another recent case of voice, or rather the lack of it. In March, the UK government announced plans to remove parents from school boards and replace them with more independent expertise, for example from local business leaders. The move quickly attracted criticism, including that parent and ‘expert’ roles in school governance are ‘not mutually exclusive’.

There’s pretty clear value in involving parents as stakeholders. The real stakeholders of schools are the pupils, of course, and there has been a rise in direct pupil participation through school councils. But there are limits to what children can do in governance. Parents may have more gravitas to ask challenging questions, or be more able to consider long-term interests above their pet concerns. More often than not, they are going to be the children’s best representatives.

The point I’d draw here is that it’s patently not the case that the general public has lost its appetite for voice. Boaty McBoatface does not illustrate that we can’t be trusted. It shows that for voice to be respected, it has to be meaningful to us, and for it to be meaningful it has to concern something we actually want to influence. Something we have a stake in. There are issues on which people are desperate to have a voice on.

A trade union representative put it nicely in a study I did a while ago:

‘One of the reasons I [temporarily] walked away from joint consultation was the arguments over how many chips make a portion of chips. I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in whether we have soft loo paper or hard loo paper – I couldn’t give a monkey’s. What I’m interested in as a representative is making sure the long-term viability of this site and making sure that all the big issues are dealt with and our members … [can] say what they think about those issues.’

It’s a great challenge to employers and also governments and others in positions of power: are you giving people a voice on things that matter to them? This is not the only crucial question on voice – another one, for another blog another time, is whether voice should automatically mean influence – but it’s a good starting point.

5 thoughts on “Boaty says: ‘Ask me something I want to influence’

  1. Profile photo of Derek T

    I think the popularity and choice of “Boaty McBoatface” also highlight two other attributes that are instinctively human: people like to have fun, and that they will test boundaries. In this case, two birds, one stone, but both of these have meaningful implications in the workplace.

    On fun, it wouldn’t be a call for force-fed programs or morale-boosters, but rather asking how can we leverage fun as a means to increase productivity AND reduce stress (commonly these are opposing forces in a workplace); to lift team cohesion within a natural vs an artificial context? Think about our daily checklist of tasks or activities — we naturally incline towards those that are more fun, and even when schedules are busy, we do try to find a way to fit them in, right?

    But in the context of voice, the testing of boundaries illustrated in the story is significant — the test being “Is Nerc really giving me a voice? Is the power to name the ship really in my hands?” And something as superficially silly and flippant as Boaty McBoatface doesn’t simply put these questions to the test; it also indicates an underlying suspicion that the voice/power that is supposedly given is not real. From one point of view, that Nerc ultimately ignored the popular vote in favour of a “sensible” choice is a no-brainer. But from a different lens, accepting “the people’s choice” would leave a much more meaningful legacy.

  2. Profile photo of LizzieOBrien

    Great blog, Jonny! Your words around making people feel like they have a voice as part of a PR stunt really struck a chord with me. As a marketer, you often read best practice guides and blogs that advise you to ‘make the customer FEEL like you’re listening to them’. And I have always thought – but why don’t we actually just listen? Employers, take note: people will always recognise the difference between a genuine consultation and a checkbox exercise to say you’ve done it!

  3. Profile photo of jonnygifford

    Thanks both. Simon, I agree, parameters are important – they help avoid the situation where you end up back pedalling because people didn’t answer the question in the way you hoped. I also think that you need to meet people part-way, let them shape the agenda too so that the questions are the ones they want to answer. One way or another, the thing that’s worse than not consulting at all is making a sham of consultation.

  4. Profile photo of SimonHeath

    I think consultation is as much about asking the right questions as it is about asking for opinions. If they’d said “Look, we’ve got a new ship. It’s conducting serious research into matters that we feel are of vital concern to the future wellbeing of the planet and all of its inhabitants. A serious ship with a serious mission needs a serious name. We feel it is important to use this occasion to honour an individual who has made a significant personal contribution to the field of human understanding of the world around us. The committee have therefore agreed upon a shortlist from which we would like the public to choose the name with which we will christen this new vessel.” you get a very different result. Similarly, setting parameters is important in union negotiations so you don’t stray off topic into bog roll territory. For sure you need to cover that off but there’s a right time and place for that stuff. If a decision you are about to make directly affects someone’s health or livelihood then you can’t wait and present it as a fait accompli because that’s how riots start. You need to think through the potential impacts and who is likely to be affected and consult before you decide. You also can’t fudge it as the fall out can be just as damaging.

  5. Profile photo of

    Thanks Jonny – there’s a lot of great deductions in here and the psychology behind comment, contribution and the like. Some things do go viral and people are drawn to them much like we had the Ice Bucket challenge and yet even that resulted in an anti-movement with comments on the waste of water and so on.

    I think there’s times when there’s a lot at stake and comments could lead to all sorts of reactions and debates.

    You only have to look at the comments section in a newspaper’s online threads to realise just how vicious and harsh it can be when you comment on something and leave a piece of you and your mind out there for all to see and take apart.

    So commenting on light hearted things like this is how people start and perhaps break their duck on commenting and voting outside of perhaps their own followers on Facebook, Twitter or Medium.

    I’ve seen a decline (in the 6 years I’ve been on social networks actively) in comments and debates on blog posts (for example) because it can get heated, personal and more. I’ve seen the vitriol (or even perceived vitriol) put people off posting in the first place. I’ve seen brilliant blog posts create zero in the comments section. For many people it’s read it, like it and move on.

    So I think you’re right – in order to elicit comments, it has to be more meaningful to people and move them emotionally to post.

    What Boaty McBoatface proves is an undeniable sense of digitally-aggregated people power and hijacking of the establishment – a little like the protest buying the Rage Against The Machine song to prevent the X Factor winner getting to Number 1.

    Good blog mate. And look I commented.
    Bloggy McBlogface.

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