An overhaul of government communications has delivered the twin aims of producing better targeted and more effective communication – and reducing the cost. It’s raised the profile of communicators across Whitehall and set new standards for the profession as a whole.
Cast your mind back to the early days of the 2010-15 coalition government. It was then, says Russell Grossman, Head of Profession for Internal Communications, Government Communication Service (GCS), that the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, posed a question.
In charge of government communications he asked: if half the money the government spent on communications was wasted, which half was it? A simple question – with dramatic results. In 2009-10 the government’s total spend on communications was £1.15 billion. Last year it was between £250 and £300 million.
“That,” says Russell, “shows how much more efficient we are.” Yet that’s only one part of the equation: research shows that while the cost of government communication has plummeted, its effectiveness has soared.
And that, says Russell, can be put down to the 2013 launch of the GCS.
“Our role,” says Russell, “was to make the best, the standard. We set out on a mission to make government communications more skilled, unified, and productive. We set about that through a rigorous series of project boards and improvement programmes, across both Whitehall departments and Arm’s Length Bodies (ALB) [such as Natural England, and the Met Office]. We wanted to deliver best value for the government and the public purse.”
Central to that vision was setting out a basic model for how any communication campaign should be run. Known by its mnemonic OASIS, Russell explains how it works: “Any campaign needs a clear objective; a deep understanding of the audience we are trying to influence; a clear strategy; ;a very specific way of implementing the campaign; and we need to measure it and evaluate it.”
Increasing the degree of insight into the audience was pivotal. It ensured communications were as good as they could be and focused communicators’ minds on using the most appropriate channels, especially digital ones. On top of that the GCS gathered evidence on what worked and what didn’t, and ran capability reviews across Whitehall departments and several ALBs.
Internal communication aims to make the individual employee realise the value they bring to the organisation they’re working for – and how much they are valued by the organisation.”
“A key finding of that review was that we also needed to significantly improve internal comms (IC): both its delivery and the value that was attached to it. One target was that IC should be as respected across government as media relations,” says Russell who was tasked with leading the resulting Internal Communications Excellence Project.
Russell explains that led to a four-pronged approach.
Firstly “establishing some tools, tips, tricks and techniques” that could be used by a wide variety of IC practitioners wherever they were based. This led to the formation of the IC Space – a fantastic resource that’s freely available on the internet to anyone, whether they are in the public or private sector. With sections on Strategy and Internal Communication, Audience Segmentation, Evaluation and Engagement, the IC Space is increasingly being seen as a must-use resource for communicators.
But why make it freely available?
“Part of the reason for that is there’s no single government intranet. Putting it on the internet means people can access it and contribute to it. And we really don’t mind that it’s a free resource – it’s been paid for by taxpayers and we’re happy it’s available to anyone who wants to use it.”
On top of these tools, the project also created a robust model for running IC, and established career paths and job descriptions for the government’s 1,000+ IC practitioners.
The second phase saw the model rolled out to key Whitehall departments and some ALBs, while the third phase is focusing on line managers. Why?
“I make a distinction between internal communication and internal communications,” says Russell. Put bluntly, internal communications is the thing that IC professionals do, while internal communication is the responsibility of the whole organisation. Internal communication aims to make the individual employee realise the value they bring to the organisation they’re working for – and how much they are valued by the organisation. This, he argues, is best done by line managers (defined as “those who affect the working life of someone else”). Line managers can put the polished words of the practitioners into practice, showing what it means to employees on the ground, transforming it into something real.
And there’s a programme of training for line managers that’s being rolled out as part of the fourth phase of the Internal Communications Excellence Project. But phase four also has two other crucial elements.
“You can’t beat face-to-face communication,” says Russell. “That’s why it’s important to bring people together.”
Firstly making sure the improvements delivered by GCS over the last three years are maintained and that’s because, as Russell says, “there’s always a decay element if you’re not careful”. The second part is set to assess IC teams in terms of “those that are good, those that are so-so, and those that need help”. And that’s because a key part of the GCS overhaul is get teams to help each other, share ideas and thoughts.
“One way we’re doing that,” says Russell, is that we’ve set up two major networks, one for the Whitehall teams and one for the ALBs. These networks can help practitioners come together, learn from each other and swap ideas.” And, at least once year, they hold events where people can meet. “You can’t beat face-to-face communication,” says Russell. “That’s why it’s important to bring people together.”
Shiona Adamson, head of IC at Natural England, an ALB, says: “We have a very strong, welcoming community that comes together to create and share our own solutions.” She explains that in March 2017 the team is holding an event “where we’re bringing heads of IC across ALBs together with practitioners from central government. We’ll be having external speakers and a key aim is to raise the standards of the profession”.
Raising the standards of the IC profession as whole – and yes, that means you too – is something Russell believes is the responsibility of government communicators as much as anyone.
“I’m very conscious that we don’t just have a responsibility to make sure we do things properly in government. We have a wider duty to the IC profession itself. That’s always at the back of our minds and it’s one of the reasons why we’re happy to share what we’re doing.”