In some societies, if you want to make something difficult happen, a witchdoctor performs a ceremony. Take rainmaking. The rainmaker makes complicated preparations, chants special words and performs a special dance, and generally puts on a good show. And sometimes, it rains.

The latest round of government advertising on climate change is little more than a modern-day rainmaking ceremony: it consumes lots of resources, puts on a good show with mumbo jumbo, and shows that someone cares—so that they can claim that at least they tried and did their best—but like so many rainmaking ceremonies, it won’t have the desired result—in this case, to make people change their behaviour (and to bring on the rain, of course!).

Today we generally understand enough about science to know that such ceremonies are just symbolic rituals. But we may not be aware that the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of government information campaigns repeatedly shows that they are about as effective in bringing about desired social change as rainmaking ceremonies are in bringing on the rain.
Of course, every now and then it will rain immediately after a ceremony. Every once in a while, desired change happens immediately following a campaign. And that single event vindicates all past ceremonies. The rites continue, millions of dollars are wasted, and another opportunity to do something useful goes by.

It need not be so. Research clearly shows that communication between organisations and the public can work effectively to a high standards by applying know-how involving strict methods, appropriate skills and evidence.

The problem is that the know-how is not present in most organisations, and especially not in government. As in many fields, there is a long lag between what has been discovered through research and what is available as standard practice within organisations. It takes up to 30 years for researchers to make useful discoveries, articulate the findings, publish the results, write the textbooks, teach the next generation of practitioners, and get the next generations into positions of power where they can implement what they have learnt. But we don’t have 30 years in which to learn how to communicate effectively about climate change. We need to do it now.

Government needs to forget about the rituals; time enough for rituals once the temperature drops and the rains return (if they ever do).

In the meantime there are practical things that government can do using evidence-based approaches to designing information for the public to use. It sounds obvious to suggest that information should be designed using evidence, but this is simply not done. If you doubt this, visit almost any government web site and you will get lost, confused, and most importantly, not find what you are looking for.

As an example, I visited the government’s climate change website, as the advertising told me to. It was not entirely clear to me what to do next, but I noticed an instruction which said ‘Select a topic’. I selected the first topic on the list ‘Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme’ because it made no sense to me and read:

The Australian Government is establishing a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme as part of an effective framework for meeting the climate change challenge.

After which I still don’t know what a CPRS is and I’m even less sure what an ‘effective framework’ is, though I suspect I wouldn’t like to bump into one on a dark night. As for ‘meeting the climate change challenge’, I love the alliteration but it sounds more like a golf tournament than anything that I can make sense of. The evidence shows that most people would give up at this point and look no further. That is the intelligent thing to do. After two unrewarding experiences, first on the home page, and then on the CPRS page (plus a history of similar experiences on other web sites), why would you look further? Life is short. Just to be diligent, I went down to the next level and was greeted with more abstractions. Life got shorter.

Sadly, this is the norm, the public experience of government communication. Sadly, this is not a symptom of individual failure, nor is it simply an example of bad writing. The problem is systemic and derives from outmoded standard practices for generating information.

With a modicum of training and support it would be possible for much of the communication by large organizations to the public to be made easily accessible and usable by the public to whom it is directed. There is good evidence to support this claim and practical experience in regulation and practice demonstrating this.

It is perhaps ironic that there is government regulation requiring some businesses to apply these standards. It’s a pity that governments fail to apply such regulation to their own activity.

But as the government advertising suggests, change is difficult. And as in previous times, it’s much easier to perform a rain making dance than it is to make it rain.