Project Spark: industry leading innovation at the heart of government communications

In late 2022, 3 pioneering teams from across the Government Communication Service faced the Project Spark! Dragons and secured the opportunity to develop, pilot, and scale their innovative ideas through the GCS Innovation Lab!

After securing the backing of the Dragons, each team joined the virtual GCS Innovation Lab where they were able to partner with experts in marketing, communications, technology, and data science, from the central GCS team, as well as pulling in industry leads from our strategic media and creative agencies to help shape their pilots. 

Over the past few months each team has made tremendous progress, and as we approach the 1 year anniversary of Project Spark!, each team has been invited to share their journey so far.

This week we are shining a spotlight on 2 of the 3 projects: streamlining how we work with influencers across government communications, and re-imagining weekly grid systems. 

In the next GCS newsletter, we’ll hear from the third pioneering team who are currently testing attention based metrics in GCS campaigns to optimise digital display, including the results from their live pilot with the Help for Households campaign – the first such pilot in the public sector!

Streamlining how we work with influencers across govt comms, supporting increasingly joined-up approaches, and best-practice sharing to drive low & no cost campaigns.

Harriet Argyle, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Kate Taylor Tett, the GREAT campaign 

Love them or loathe them, there is no denying influencers are a key channel to be able to reach target audiences. While many Departments utilise them already for communicating key messages, the way that we work with influencers across Government is done on an ad-hoc basis, with varying asks going to the same influencers time and time again. 

Our initial pitch was to create a shared database that would streamline influencer activity cross-Whitehall, helping to share knowledge and enhance collaboration across all departments, in turn allowing GCS to build stronger relationships with influencers. 

During our pitch, the Dragons recognised that this was an important area to innovate the way government communications currently operate, challenging us to be even more ambitious and explore options beyond those we originally pitched. 

In early 2023, we designed and ran a programme of engagement with comms teams from across GCS and external agencies, to identify specific problem statements that could shape what a truly strategic approach should look like. 

From this engagement we identified three key levers to change:

  1. Build Credibility within HMG. We should ensure the value and impact that working with influencers can bring is understood across government communications, and by our senior stakeholders. Influencers should be considered and approached in the same way we use other ‘traditional’ media channels to reach specific target audiences. 
  2. Drive systematic change within HMG. There is a need for fresh, standardised policy and/or guidance about how GCS is able to work with influencers and the process. Increasingly working in the same way across government communications will open up opportunities for collaboration across depts, which will also strengthen relationships with external individuals and agencies. Ultimately, departments should be empowered to make their own judgement on whether an influencer is able to support a campaign by following ‘self service’ due diligence guidance. 
  3. Improve external perceptions. We should engage with influencers and influencer  agencies with one voice to showcase the HMG offer. Ideally, approaches to influencers should be issue-focussed rather than perceived as political. Issue-based support could be built over time rather than just be hooked to announcements only. We should also work to minimise ad hoc requests, which appear to de-value what influencers can do for HMG. 

With these in-hand, it led us to design a suite of tangible products which could be developed centrally, and then scaled across government communications, for example:

  • Creating a set of GCS standardised guidelines for working with influencers, including procurement best practices. 
  • Creating an influencers showcase, highlighting examples of best practice campaigns, and demonstrating the relative value and ROI vs. more traditional media channels.
  • Developing best practices for approaching and briefing influencers, as well as internal guidance to articulate the value of influencers as a credible communications channel, as well as common response lines for press offices. 

The central GCS Innovation Lab team is now taking these forward and expects to roll out later this year!

Re-imagining weekly grid systems, from data collection, to visualising insights, and sharing the effectiveness of comms to generate continuous learnings and play-forward actions.

Maya Angelo, the US Consulate Network, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Alice Preedy, GCS Strategy & Campaigns team

Ashley Poole, GCS Applied Data & Insights team 

Unlike the other 2 projects through to the Innovation Lab, the goal of our project was to scale an existing innovative platform which had already been rolled out across the comms team at the British Consulate in Washington D.C.

The platform harnesses the built-in integrations of Microsoft 365 to create a single comms planning process, connecting teams across the US consulate network. The result is a single, convenient dataset of planned communications activity, which can be edited by contributors to add evaluation information after delivery. The dataset is used to automatically produce live dashboards and reporting.

As well as saving time, the platform surfaces previously inaccessible information, enabling forward planning to be much more agile and helping senior leaders in the US network understand how comms activity is supporting the government’s priorities, and the department’s goals. It ensures everyone is aware of who is leading what activity, and whether activity is ignoring key issues, enabling teams to be increasingly focused, strategic and coordinated. 

Once we had secured support from the Dragons to scale our existing system, we identified two objectives to focus our efforts, using the original platform in the US as the design inspiration:

  • Enabling greater grid collaboration across government, through working with the No10 gridding team. 
  • Enabling more effective comms planning and gridding within a department, through partnering with departmental comms teams.

Enabling rapid innovation is a core mission of the GCS Innovation Lab, therefore we decided to focus on scaling the original solution with departments who are best positioned to immediately begin benefiting, rather than focusing on developing a single cross-government gridding platform, which would have been a significant undertaking outside of the scope of the Innovation Lab.

In March, we partnered with the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) to develop a local version of the British Consulates original platform. DBT are ideal partners to scale with, as they were already exploring off-the-shelf commercial options to upgrade their gridding system when we approached them, plus DBT uses the same Microsoft 365 environment as the original platform. 

In parallel, the central GCS Innovation Lab team has developed a proof-of-concept of the platform which replicates the same functionality and benefits, but using Google Workspace instead of Microsoft 365. We are working with the Cabinet Office (CO) Press team to implement this innovation in their communications planning and gridding.

Once developed and piloted within DBT and CO, the ambition is for this to become a best practice template which other Microsoft-based departments and ALBs can use to upgrade their own gridding processes, harnessing automation and data to surface new insights.

What next?

If you have your own innovative ideas about how we can collectively deliver increasingly impactful government communications, or been inspired by the industry leading innovations from Spark! class of 2022, then you do not have to wait much longer to get involved – submissions for wave 2 will open later in May, and more details will follow soon. 

Wave two will again be open to all GCS members, including arms-length-bodies as well as central departments, and will take forward learnings from wave 1 ensuring we can drive innovation more rapidly in 2023, and share updates with GCS members more regularly!

So we encourage teams to start thinking now about innovative ideas which could shape the future of government communications!

If you have any questions, or would like to know more about the 3 projects which are part of the first wave, please contact