Carrot and stick in the census campaign: where’s the incentive?

The civic-minded person within me likes Language’s ad for Census 2011. However, the cynic (or the realist) then takes over. My problem is not with the ad itself, but with the selling of the census. We’re told in the ad that it’s good for us to make our mark on April 10, as we can better plan for our country’s healthcare, commuting, education, and employment needs.

The ad seems divorced from context, first, as the entire fiscal landscape we are living in is one of cutbacks, so any planning in public services looks wishful thinking from here. Second, there’s not a strong tradition in Irish public life of using data to plan the future provision of services (our health service is perhaps the clearest deviation from best practice here); the chequered history of the National Development Plan and the Spatial Strategy are illustrations of where planning was not maximised, to say the least. So the positive reward – better data for better planning –   just doesn’t tally. The negative reward in the accompanying literature further detracts from the impact of the positive spin: if you don’t fill it in, you leave yourself open to prosecution. If the deterrent of possible legal sanction is that pressing, then why bother with a positive spin? If the reward is a better Ireland, then do we need a front of mind legal sanction to be communicated? The messages conflict.

It’s not that the communications people have got this wrong, it’s just that the marginal impact of these messages, in terms of boosting census completion,  is questionable.

Posted by Ken.

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