Speech: “Collaboration, Innovation and Great People: The GCS Strategy”
Simon Baugh, Chief Executive of Government Communication Service (GCS), delivered a speech at the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) ‘Influencing the Future Conference’ on Tuesday 8 November 2022.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak here today. It’s great to talk to people in person.
The title of this year’s conference is “Influencing the Future”. So where better to start than 69 AD? That was the year that went down in history as the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’. I imagine 2022 will go down in British history as the ‘Year of Three Prime Ministers’.
And yet, for all the political turmoil, when I look back on 2022 it won’t be the politics that I remember.
It is almost exactly a year since I became Chief Executive of Government Communications. And in that year, the Government Communication Service has been tested by four once-in-a-generation events. Four moments when we were asked to rise to the challenge, and were not found wanting.
Omicron, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Cost of Living, and the death of Her Majesty The Queen.
Our response to each greatly influences my thinking about the future. Because for each of these events, what worked – why our response was successful – holds clues about what we as communicators need to do to continue to succeed in the modern world.
The first case of Omicron was announced by South Africa less than a year ago. By 27 November we had identified the first cases in the UK. I remember receiving a call at 10.30 on a Saturday morning in early December and being asked to join a call with the Prime Minister in 15 minutes. Ironically, I couldn’t make it because I was getting my booster jab. But the message came through that he wanted an urgent plan for a campaign to increase vaccine take up, and I needed to present it at 5pm that day. We had to break all records for speed of delivery to prevent another wave of the virus. By Sunday evening, we had launched “Get Boosted Now”. By Tuesday, we had TV commercials on air and a fully integrated campaign running. From brief to execution in under four days. And demand for booster shots more than doubled as a result.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Before our Get Boosted Now campaign had finished, we were facing a new threat. An invasion of one nation state in Europe by another for the first time in my lifetime. By late January the intelligence picture was clear. It was also clear that communications would be central to the effort. Russia sees information as a weapon of war. Disinformation is simply part of a method to undermine the cohesion of its enemies, deliberately sow division and make it harder to respond to its aggression and maintain alliances.
Within a few days we created an entirely new capability – the Government Information Cell – to identify and counter Kremlin disinformation targeted at UK and international audiences. Bringing together expertise from across different government departments and agencies we challenged false narratives. We dealt in facts, not falsehoods; ‘the truth well told’ became our motto. It was remarkable in the days leading up to Russia’s invasion just how much intelligence was quickly declassified to get ahead of Putin’s actions. From the warnings of the war. To the intelligence on false flag operations designed to provide a fake premise to the invasion.
Cost of Living
By March it was clear that the war in Ukraine would have a very real impact on families in the UK. Rising energy costs, combined with inflation, wage stagnation and rising taxes were going to put extraordinary pressure on household budgets. Many citizens were already facing hard choices and required immediate support, others were anxious for their future. Outside of the policy question of what extra help should be provided, there was an immediate opportunity for GCS.
There was already lots of support available, but too few people accessing it. Either because of a lack of awareness or because it was hard to find – with support schemes split across multiple layers of government and promoted poorly. It required a cross-government audience-focussed campaign. And so we created ‘Help for Households’. This brought together 50 different types of support in a simple, easy to understand and easy to access resource. There have been more than four million visits to the campaign website; two-thirds of those who are aware of the campaign have taken action; and we’ve seen significant increases in the numbers taking up support with, for example, 50,000 more claims for pension credit than in the previous six months.
The Queen’s funeral
Ever since I joined Government communications, I had been part of exercises for what was known as ‘Operation London Bridge’ and I had always hoped it wouldn’t happen on my watch. Now, I found myself as the Gold communications lead. I need not have worried. It was an extraordinary 12 days and I am so proud of the teams across GCS and other public bodies who worked so hard following Her late Majesty’s passing.
Our objectives were to support a fitting commemoration of the life and legacy of The Queen, to celebrate the accession of The King, to bring our country together, and to enhance the reputation of the UK overseas. Hand on heart, on each, I feel we succeeded and communications played its part. The dedication and professionalism of everyone involved allowed plans to be executed almost flawlessly and I am very grateful to everyone involved.
So what are the lessons from the last year that influence my thinking about the future?
The first is that, if I ever had any doubt before, it has brought home to me just how much what we do in government communications really matters. We published a three-year strategy for GCS we in May called ‘Performance with Purpose’. And it is that sense of purpose, that sense of mission, that sense of being able to make a real difference on the most important issues of the day that drives people to join GCS.
The reason it is performance with purpose is because when you’re working on the most important issues of the day your performance really matters. And the ability of GCS to deliver to a high standard in a fast changing world really makes a difference to people’s lives.
Performance with Purpose had three themes: collaboration, innovation, and great people. We chose them because they represented what we needed to do to be successful for the future. But they are also absolutely in evidence in each of our successes over the past year. Each of our successes was built on collaboration, innovation and great people.
Now is the moment to redouble our efforts on these three priorities.
The big challenges facing the country can only be tackled together. However big or powerful you are, in an increasing networked world, you cannot achieve your goals by acting alone.
Throughout Covid, partnerships helped us reach different target audiences engaging people via their interests and passion points. Media (including local media), businesses, charities and community groups, gaming, retail, student organisations, sports clubs, healthcare, every type of celebrity and influencer – you name them they used their reach and credibility to engage audiences. We spoke to people in their own language (literally and figuratively). We were able to address barriers and motivations in a way we could never have done by acting alone.
Similarly on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a collaboration and partnership with international allies and with the security and intelligence services allowed us to work to reach a bigger audience. The Government Information Cell brought together experts from FCDO, MoD, Cabinet Office and the Intelligence Services in one team
On the Cost of Living, individual departments and agencies were willing to put aside their existing plans and come together for the common good – recognising that we would achieve more together than alone. So rather than DWP, DfE and HMRC speaking to the same audience about the element of childcare they were responsible for, we could come behind one campaign to get all of the information in one place for those who needed it.
And on The Queen’s funeral. The Royal Household, GCS members in every department – especially in the Cabinet Office, DCMS, FCDO, MoD, and DfT – The Scottish and Welsh Governments and the NI Executive, operational partners at the Met Police, TfL, Westminster and Windsor councils, and the GLA. All came together proactively, working in a solution-oriented, and unfailing helpful way.
So what are the lessons for how you foster collaboration like that? I think there are a few things to get right:
- First, focussing on audiences and having shared outcomes so that the benefits of working together are clear.
- Second, openly sharing audience data and insight so everyone is working from the same information
- Third, valuing different perspectives and listening to organisational expertise rather than pursuing a top-down approach
- Fourth, recognising the need to deliver individual organisational priorities as part of a wider plan.
- Finally, creating opportunities for people to connect on a personal level to build trust and joint working.
I suspect that delivering a more joined up approach to government communications is a job that will never be complete. But I feel more confident than a year ago in challenging when we do not demonstrate an audience-focussed approach or work together on cross-government objectives. In actively joining-up departments so that our communications reflect the concerns of our audience rather than our internal structures. And in supporting stronger government brands so we can cut through and have greater reach.
The fast pace of technological innovation is profoundly changing our world and opening up new opportunities for how we can deliver public communications.
Again, innovation was at the heart of each of the year’s successes.
On Covid we created an NHS Vaccines chatbot – a digital tool that provided a comprehensive and instant solution to questions about Covid-19 vaccination, via a simulated conversation with a digital assistant. It significantly surpassed benchmarks for engagement and is something that could be applied to other campaigns
On Russia and Ukraine, declassifying intelligence and holding regular media briefings from the Chief of Defence Intelligence was unprecedented. The open way in which we shared information was in contrast to Russia and helped build trust and confidence. The MoD has also used social listening tools such as ‘Answer the Public’ to understand what information the public is searching for on Ukraine so that our social media content answers the questions they are asking, rather than simply broadcasting what we think.
Our Help for Households campaign has pioneered the use of data to evidence that communication activity is driving outcomes. This is notoriously difficult in Government. Through this work we can demonstrate that specific comms activity is driving the take up of support.
While you wouldn’t think that a State Funeral is the obvious place for innovation, the work that the DCMS team did with its queue tracker for the Lying-in-State gained world-wide media attention. What I am proudest of is that it was developed in-house within 24 hours after Google’s in-house team had said that it may not be possible.
So how to foster a culture of innovation?
- First, by each GCS member feeling empowered to make small improvements each day. The greatest advances won’t come from a top down approach. We are trying to create a culture where each GCS member is encouraged to have a mindset of improving communications practices, lowering costs, and increasing quality.
- Second, identifying, testing and scaling innovation that already exists and supporting people to develop great ideas. So we have set up Project Spark! – a Dragon’s Den-style opportunity for GCS members to share their ideas, sell them to a senior panel of ‘dragons’ and see them implemented across government. We held our first Den last week and have selected three projects – piloting the use of an attention metric to develop more effective media plans, improving government grids so we can use them for evaluation as well as planning, and understanding influencers as a media channel.
- Third, allocating a proportion of our spend to innovation. Our current standards place a premium on teams demonstrating that the method they are using has been tried successfully previously. Over time this stifles innovation. The largest private sector advertisers typically allocate 10% of their annual marketing budget to innovative practices from which they can learn and improve. By doing the same within government we can spur innovation.
It scarcely needs saying that great people have been at the heart of each of our successes. Volunteers from across departments were essential to each one. We needed to respond at great speed and we needed communicators who were real experts in their field – strategists, analysts, behavioural scientists, digital content creators, partnership experts. And most importantly we needed them to act as one team.
I am not going to go through the individuals involved in each campaign. But I am immensely grateful for their work and sacrifice – the late nights, the weekends, and the unreasonable demands that we made, I’m afraid, all too frequently through a series of extraordinary events.
Our people are at the heart of GCS. And we need to do more to invest in them to attract, retain and develop the talent we need for the future and maintain our ability to serve the public.
So what does this mean we need to do differently for the future?:
First, a re-evaluation of our approach to learning and development and professional accreditation. For all of us, the skills we will need at the end of our communications career are going to be different from the skills we started with. GCS has an award-winning, but voluntary, learning and development curriculum for government communications professionals. We are going to change that by introducing a mandatory accreditation and assessment model to make sure all GCS communicators are operating at the expected standard.
Second, we need to do more to attract and retain talented communicators. We may not be able to compete with the private sector on pay. But we can certainly compete on purpose. Would you rather spend your career selling more cups of coffee, or saving lives and livelihoods, protecting the vulnerable, helping achieve our net zero target, or promoting values of democracy, human rights, and equality internationally? Align that with an opportunity to work with great people in a creative and innovative environment and we can make GCS a destination of choice for comms professionals.
Third, create a more diverse and inclusive GCS based across the whole of the UK. We cannot communicate effectively with people across the UK if we do not draw on a wide range of experiences and perspectives. This is about increasing diversity of thought as well as representation. We will create more opportunities for people to develop their careers outside of London and publish a strategy with a target for one-third of GCS roles in Ministerial departments to be based outside of London by 2025. This will enable us to better reflect the views of citizens in all parts of the country and allow us to draw on a wider pool of talent.
So that is my view of what we need to be successful for the future. Collaboration. Innovation. Great People. There is a good argument to be made that they are the things that we have needed to be successful throughout history. Perhaps the most important elements to the success of homo sapiens as a species is our ability to collaborate, to harness new technology for the greater good, and to advance our learning. But in a world that is changing more quickly than ever, they have never been more important. And they take time, focus and energy to do well.
FCDO – The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
MoD – Ministry of Defence
DWP – Department for Work and Pensions
DfE -Department for Educations
HMRC – HM Revenue and Customs
DfT – Department for Transport
NI Executive – Northern Ireland Executive
TfL – Transport for London
GLA – Greater London Authority