Speech: Partnerships, performance and people: the future of government communications
Simon Baugh, Chief Executive of Government Communication Service (GCS), delivered a speech on day 1 of the Public Service Communications Academy 2021, with LGComms. His speech covers themes including partnerships, performance and people.
LGcommunications (LGcomms) is a national body made up of an association of authorities that works to raise the standard of communications in local government.
Thank you to everyone who has been involved in putting together this important event. It is fantastic to be able to speak to you all one month into my new role as the Chief Executive of GCS.
I was delighted when I saw that the theme of this year’s academy is ‘partnerships, performance and people’. That theme almost exactly matches my priorities for the Government Communication Service. And I want to take a moment to address each in turn.
Partnerships: Clear priorities that we deliver together
The 350 organisations that form part of the Government Communication Service each have their own priorities and objectives. However, we will achieve more working together in partnership than we will achieve alone. The big challenges facing the country, and this government’s response to them – levelling up, building our international reputation, or meeting our net-zero targets – can only be tackled successfully together.
The annual GCS communications strategy should not be a list of everything that is happening across government and the public sector. Instead, it should be a genuine discussion with Ministers, CEOs and other officials about our priorities for government communications. Those priorities should be the big areas where communications can positively change attitudes or behaviour. And once those priorities are agreed, we should work across GCS to communicate them in a cross-cutting way – helping people make the link between different policies in different organisations, and providing shared proof points and evidence in support of our arguments.
In an era of information overload, communicating less more consistently is the best way to cut through.
This is not about a top-down approach where the centre tells everyone what to do. Sensible collaboration doesn’t mean an end to operational independence. It means coming together where we have shared interests without limiting people’s ability to speak out where they disagree. Why shouldn’t the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the courts, the prison and probation service, the police and the National Crime Agency work together to build public confidence in the criminal justice system and explain how it is working to cut crime and support victims?
Those of you who have worked with the police will know that they jealously guard their operational independence. Quite rightly, they are cautious about doing anything that could be seen as responding to political direction. The way the Government and the Police worked together during Covid offers some clues as to how to build partnerships for the public good between operationally independent bodies.
It starts with shared objectives. How to build compliance with the regulations and maintain public confidence in the police when we are restricting people’s liberty in an unprecedented way.
Then shared insight. How does the public feel about the way the police are enforcing regulations, and what could build and maintain their confidence?
And finally a willingness to seek outside expertise. Using behavioural scientists to understand how to use social norms to show most people are following the rules and where and when to show the police taking action.
That partnership across government and public sector bodies should also stretch to partners in the private and third sectors who share our goals, ambitions and values. Building public confidence that the state and the private sector can come together to take action on the things that people care about should be natural, not novel.
True partnership is not about getting others to make your case for you. It is about identifying allies with shared interests so that you can marshal your resources and harness the power of each other’s network.
Performance: more effective and efficient communication
Most of us joined a communications team in government or the public sector because we wanted to do meaningful work that makes a difference. To continue to deliver exceptional communications we always need to look at how we can get better.
The communications profession is changing fast. The landscape we operate in is volatile, with a high level of innovation, new actors and fragile public trust. The central challenge for Government Communications is to keep modernising the communications profession to harness technological changes for the public good.
To continue to deliver for the public, we need a revolution in our own skills and capability, especially in data, audience insight, and digital communications.
Dee Cotgrove, GCS Head of Professional Standards will be talking tomorrow about our Future Communicator project. This is a piece of work looking forward to what skills, capabilities, and experience we will need in government communications professionals come 2025.
Data science, engineering, and artificial intelligence are increasingly important skills for the future of communications.
We are looking for superhero communicators who combine the data analysis, numeracy and software savvy of an engineer with the story-telling, creativity and empathy of an artist. My sense is that there are few people around who are equally brilliant at all those things.
Perhaps the era of the communications generalist is over. We increasingly need people with deep and specialist expertise. That means a re-evaluation of our approach to learning and development, career progression and professional accreditation.
Government Communications has a great learning and development offer for those who want to take advantage of it. We have great talent programmes, a comprehensive online curriculum, and provide funding and time for people who want to invest in themselves. However, it has also been possible for people who have not invested in their own learning and development to progress. I wonder whether the time has come to be more demanding of ourselves.
One of the most common things people have asked of me in my first few weeks in the job is to deliver a profession that is more respected in government. If we want to be taken more seriously, we need to take our own standards and accreditation more seriously. No one would expect to receive legal advice from someone who was neither trained in the law nor kept their professional accreditation up to date. Why should it be feasible for Ministers or Chief Executives to receive communications advice from someone who has not been trained in the latest communications techniques and practices? Why should we permit someone to reach a leadership position in communications with no leadership training or project management qualifications?
As well as effectiveness I want to touch on efficiency as part of performance. Continuously getting better is not just about adding new things, but also looking at how to reprioritise and reduce work that is now less relevant.
Whether we are funded by the taxpayer or the private sector we have a duty to look continuously at how we can deliver better value for money. GCS has grown considerably in size over the years and the answer to every problem cannot be to recruit more people.
Efficiency is not a bad word or something to be afraid of. It should be a positive force. Pressure on resources forces us to choose priorities, it drives innovation, and it challenges us to think about the capability we need for the future. Driving efficiency through a regular cycle of business planning should be a normal part of how we work, rather than something that we need a major change programme to deliver.
I care passionately about driving value for money in what we do. Delivering value for money with every penny we spend should not be seen as the preserve of the private sector. I know how hard people work to pay the taxes that we spend. Improving our efficiency should be more of a focus in the public sector than the private sector. For us, it is a moral and ethical imperative.
Finally, but most importantly I want to talk about people.
Like most communications businesses, our people are what makes GCS. And the skills and expertise we have will be the ultimate determinant of our success. We will need to be much more confident in using data to improve outcomes. We need to better equip ourselves to listen, evaluate impact, and learn fast.
My ambition is for GCS to have the strongest learning and development offer for communications professionals of any employer in the UK.
Being part of GCS should be something that every credible communicator in the UK wants on their CV. I have spent most of my career in the private sector. It should be natural for people with communications skills built-in business or the third sector to experience serving in government communications, even if only for a short period, and for those in public service to spend time in the private sector. And I want everyone to feel that GCS is an organisation that can support them to grow and develop their career.
People entering our profession today have different expectations. They want to make a difference. They want to progress quickly, be stretched, and be given opportunities that match their talents, not the time they have served. They want to work in an environment where they can be themselves and work in a way that suits their lifestyle.
I believe this is an opportunity for government and public sector communications. We cannot compete with the private sector on pay, so we must develop a different offer: the ability to do interesting, meaningful and purposeful work; a strong learning and development offer; greater workplace flexibility; and an inclusive culture where everyone can flourish.
Increasing diversity is critical to our operational success. We cannot communicate effectively with people across the UK unless we draw our talent from every section of society. Today just over 14% of GCS members are from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority backgrounds, but only 6% of our senior leaders are. I am determined to change that. I want an open and inclusive environment where people know that different views, backgrounds and experiences are welcome. That includes creating more opportunities for people to develop their careers outside London if they choose.
Finally, I want to talk about trust. The Covid-19 pandemic has been an important reminder that public confidence and trust in what the government is saying is critical to our national security and well-being.
The irony of fake news is that the problem is real. Misinformation and disinformation are a genuine threat to our democracy. Our ability to earn the public’s trust is under deliberate attack by some and abetted by others who turn a blind eye.
While some tech companies have taken steps to improve safety on their platforms, progress has been too slow and inconsistent overall. We cannot surrender our online spaces to those who spread hate, abuse, fear and false content.
As well as challenging others, we each have to take responsibility for our own content. Our core Civil Service values are more important than ever, but in an increasingly polarised public debate, they are questioned more frequently too.
I expect the civil servants who are part of GCS to abide by the highest ethical standards. Our role is not to be uncontroversial – we are here to explain the policies and objectives of the Government, however, politically contested they might be.
But at the same time, any statement that comes from official government channels should be justified by the facts. It should be objective and explanatory, and not biased or polemical. Citizens should be able to trust what they read from official government channels. They should be confident that we have made as positive a case as the facts warrant – no more and no less.
It is wonderful to be able to speak to you this morning. I recognise that people feel tired after the challenges of the last two years. After the communications challenges of Brexit and the global pandemic, it can be difficult to get out of crisis mode. This is a moment for our profession to lift our eyes to the horizon and determine who we want to be and how we want to be seen in the future.
My answer is simple.
More collaborative, more skilled, more diverse, more efficient, more effective.
More ready to face the challenges of the future and more able to continue to deliver exceptional public service communications that make a difference.