The new Government Communication Service – back to the future?
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.
‘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.