GCS Appoints Kate Whitty-Johnson as the Head of Discipline for External Affairs

We are excited to announce that we have appointed Kate Whitty-Johnson as the Head of Discipline for External Affairs.

Kate’s recent experience of heading Defra’s external affairs team alongside other stakeholder facing roles means Kate brings a wealth of experience and passion to this role.

Kate Whitty-Johnson

We spoke to Kate to find out more about her past work life, her decision to apply for the role and what she envisions for the future. 

Tell us about your work experience and history

“I have worked in a variety of roles in the Government Communication Service (GCS) over the last 15 years. When I started my career I joined the Department of Health set with the task of improving listening and engagement through a series of high-profile health reforms. I then went on to lead the Deputy Prime Minister’s (at the time this was Nick Clegg) events, visits and external engagement programme in the Coalition, which was then followed by running campaigns within the Cabinet Office.

After this I went on to head up the External Affairs team at Defra – ensuring we have had strong engagement mechanisms in place with a range of sectors, including those working in the food supply chain, environment NGOs (Non Government Organisations), charities and think tanks. These structures helped prepare our stakeholders for the transition from the EU, impacts of COVID-19 and to ensure successful outcomes at COP26.

Whilst my previous roles and subjects have all been very varied my focus has always been on ensuring we are outward-looking – ensuring we connect, listen, and work with others to achieve our goals.”

Why did you decide to take this role? 

“I have seen how difficult it can be to engage with government as a stakeholder. Before joining the Civil Service, my employer, an Arm’s Length Body (ALB), tasked me with government relations. It was because of this that I found government to be virtually impenetrable – they engaged sporadically and normally only when there was an issue.

Since starting in government, I have been passionate about encouraging others to see the value of regular external engagement to help increase perspective, understanding, and extend the reach of our messages. Working with partners that our audiences value and trust was, and still is, crucial to achieving this! 

When I returned from maternity leave, I was really excited to see external affairs recognised as a communications discipline with a thriving network of professionals meeting regularly to push the profession forward and an External Affairs Operating Model to support development.

We all proved the value of external affairs through COVID-19 when External Affairs teams were able to confidently stand up engagement at speed with business groups, patient groups, the food industry, transport operators, local authorities and many, many more important audiences. Cascading important public health advice was critical. But it works both ways, and stakeholder input to policy was crucial to understanding potential impacts across a range of industries. The scale and agility of this engagement was phenomenal and achieved because of our foundational relationships and confidence in place.

I really look forward to working with the External Affairs community to build on this and keep developing the profession.”

What do you see for the future

“As someone who started out in government wanting more community, support and development in external affairs I feel incredibly privileged to take on the baton from Suzanne Edmond, who has done an amazing job for the profession. The External Affairs network is brimming with passionate and talented people. I’m looking forward to shining a spotlight on our members’ amazing achievements and supporting talent to come through and grow their careers in this space and cementing external affairs as a core part of the communications offer. 

The external affairs network is a collaborative group, and I see my role as channelling that collective energy to further grow the profession. This means helping our talent grow through access to training and hands on experience and creating opportunities for people to come together to share ideas and thinking – allowing people to learn from others’ work. I am also keen to look at how we increase engagement with others outside of the traditional Whitehall bubble – ensuring we are hearing a diversity of perspectives and views from groups across the UK.  Finally, I am really excited to see some of my colleagues and external partners in person to exchange views and deepen relationships further!”

Simon Baugh, GCS Chief Executive, congratulates Kate on the appointment:

“I am really delighted that Kate has agreed to take on the Head of Discipline role for External Affairs. Heads of Discipline have a critical role to play in helping to raise standards and share best practice. The EA profession has made great strides in recent years. I know Kate is ambitious to continue to drive improvement and collaboration across the profession, including with ALB comms teams.”

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