The new Government Communication Service – back to the future?

18 October 2013

Some excitement and a little bit of déjà vu when the email arrived explaining the rationale behind the newly launched Government Communication Service. But will communications ever be valued or used to best effect in government?

With new methods of communications bypassing government press offices and major departmental cuts still to come, government communicators are rightly under pressure to show their worth. This week’s announcement is about improving governance and building a profession.

It says:

‘We are now building on our strengths by creating a Government Communication Service (GCS). The GCS will operate as a single profession. With shared standards for recruitment and talent management, for example, closer working relationships between departments and their agencies, and better integration of digital into everything we do.’

To some current and former government communicators this might seem a little familiar:

• In 1997 – a review was undertaken by a team chaired by Robin Mountfield, the Permanent Secretary of the Office of Public Service, and which included Alastair Campbell and Mike Granatt, the then Head of the GICS. Much was said of communicators feeling undervalued in their departments and there was a call for more support to gain wider experience and promotions.

• In 2003, the Phillis Review of Government communications said that communications needed to have: ‘strong central communications structure and strong, integrated departmental communications structures’. The government responded in 2004, by setting up the Government Communications Network and appointing a permanent secretary for communications in the Cabinet Office. Core competencies were developed but the shared development centre and recruitment process was shelved.

The first cause for concern about whether this review will succeed is that it is not clear it has fully understood why previous reforms have failed, even though it was drafted in consultation with previous communications leaders.

Our own work on policy success factors shows that learning lessons of past failures is key to future success. One reason for previous failures might be that comms has not yet made a clear integrated offer to the whole of government. Outside the still much respected press functions and ministers’ love for media attention, comms has not just struggled to be seen as a ‘profession’ but also to be seen as one that is central to the business of the whole department.

Communicators do best when they are able to see where a policy won’t work from a public communications perspective and can challenge it. To do so the rest of the department needs to understand their value early enough. Numerous attempts at reform have tried to solve this – our study of the story of the Health and Social Care Act, identified very clearly that communications and policy cannot be separated but they still fail to come together at the right time. The NHS plan was described by one interviewee as ‘a major communication failure over a set of changes that were so complex, and so much to do with the wiring, that they proved impossible to explain’.

This links to a second reservation and that is the risk not just of exclusion but of building silos for the government professions. There are 11 projects attached to the announcement of the new GCS including: mandatory evaluation, cross government internal communications, developing the government communications corporate centre and integrating social media and digital channels within all communications functions. But they are all focused on changes the profession can make itself – not on how it is going to work better with other ‘professions’ inside government, such as policy, specialists, finance and HR.

The same challenge applies to the policy profession too. As we noted last week at the launch of the policy profession review, policy making is also a collaborative act – so what we need to see is a plan for how the professions will work together.

Some ministers are now looking at how they reconfigure their private offices to include their press secretaries. This might address the issue of early involvement in policy but risks detaching the ministerial press adviser from the rest of the department if the communicator is not working in a more integrated way across the department.

Communicators of the future will need to be multi-skilled not just in new digital and PR techniques, but also in their role in shaping policy too. They’ll need to understand how social policy is developing and how new tactics can influence people’s behaviours – such as behavioural economics. This kind of professional skill is appreciated; to develop it would be an important signal to the rest of Whitehall that comms sees the value of how other professions and skills work together.

But the changes proposed will go some way to professionalising communications:

• More evaluation – no communicator should be stumped for an answer when asked: why are you here and what difference did you make?
• An emphasis on value for money and in-house expertise. The use of advertising and PR agencies will need to be justified. Social media, online forums, the third sector and news now educate the public on anything from money saving advice to weaning babies – government paid-for advertising is no longer the default answer.
• Social media integration – its use is growing in government but understanding of social media is still variable.
• And as Whitehall grapples with major transformations, internal comms is rightly given more recognition. As we said in Transforming Whitehall Departments, internal change experts are crucial to success of further cuts and reforms.

Communicators need to be multi-talented and manage today’s communications channels more strategically and efficiently, which this plan recognises. Breaking down the silos within the communication functions and providing more central support is therefore welcome, but we mustn’t ignore the risk of new silos between the professions being created instead.

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One Response

  1. Andrea Newman on 24 October 2013 at 8:59 am

    Really insightful blog about Government communications. As a former Government press officer who worked in different departments I observed huge disparities in the way Govt comms departments operated and the level of expertise and skills within those departments. Working in one department from another is like working in completely different organisations – they could do a lot more to work collaboratively to share skills (and surely this would save money too). I would say this is long overdue – but agree with Nadine’s blog that this is a slightly historical move. Under GICS there was more of a Central approach to comms, including recruitment, so there is an argument that this is history repeating itself.
    However there is much to be gained if this review works. As a profession we want to be recognised for important role we play and the value we can bring. Since 2003/ 2004 when the last review took place there have been huge changes in communications. Back then 24 hour news media was still a relatively new phenomena and no-one had really heard much about social media. So I do think the review is timely.
    I also agree that press & policy are becoming much more aligned. There are parallels outside Government too. When I worked for the Association of Chief Police Officers for five years as their Assistant Director of Communications, the communications team worked closely with the President of ACPO and its members (senior officers). At ACPO we were often asked to reflect on policing policy – particularly around new and emerging issues such as trolling for instance (stalking online/Twitter). Police Officers certainly recognise the value that communications brings to the policy table. Even though I now work in the private sector, I still look to the GCN for guidance and expertise. I regularly visit its website and share its How To Guides.
    If the review brings a more professional approach to the way Government delivers its communications this can only be a positive step towards ensuring our profession moves with the times and remains respected by our colleagues. I will watch with interest.

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