Speech: Stakeholder engagement in a changing world
Simon Baugh, Chief Executive of Government Communication Service, delivered a speech on day 2 of CIPR’s (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) Stakeholder Engagement in a Changing World event. His speech covers themes including collaboration, capability, expectations and trust.
This is my first public speech since I became the new Chief Executive of the Government Communication Service (GCS).
I was told by a colleague on my first day that my most important priority was to make sure people understood that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic wasn’t over. I have adopted the time-trusted communications approach of showing not telling, by actually catching Covid.
And so having initially been disappointed that this conference was virtual rather than in person, I am now delighted that I can still join you from my legally imposed self-isolation.
I want to use the time I have today to talk about the changing world that is one of the themes of this conference and the challenges and opportunities for government communications. I want to talk today about the biggest challenges that I think we are facing as communicators and the areas where we need to redouble our efforts in response. I believe they are challenges and priorities for our profession as a whole too, so I hope you will find something useful whatever your background and current work.
GCS members work in arm’s-length bodies (ALBs), non-ministerial and central government departments. They are marketeers, internal communicators, designers, press officers, content producers, speechwriters, stakeholder managers, behavioural scientists, data analysts, and digital experts. All are seeking to explain and build support for policies, or change behaviour for the public good. Their achievements represent public service at its best and I am proud to have the opportunity to lead them.
As well as celebrating our successes, it is my responsibility to make sure that we are ready for the future.
It’s only just over twenty years since my first role in communications. At the time, if you had the right contacts book, you could speak over the course of one morning to every person who was going to write something that the British people would read the next day. Social media literally did not exist. If something appeared on the internet then it meant the story might “break the next day”.
I state that, not to make myself feel old, but to remind ourselves how much has changed and how quickly. I think it is natural that we all sometimes feel like we’re slightly behind the curve. We are living in an age of information overload.
The promise of new technology was that we would be able to reach the right people, with the right message, at the right time. And we do have a far greater ability to tailor and personalise messages to individuals in new and exciting ways.
But often, as professional communicators it can feel like communicating has become more difficult rather than easier. We are drinking from a fire hose. Deluged with information, we try to put out hundreds of fires each day. Judgements need to be made instantly, with time for debate about the right approach a luxury of the past. However much we monitor, there will always be an arcane blog we have missed. However much we try to stay on trend, a new platform or piece of software appears that is a complete mystery. It feels like there are more days when we are withstanding the storm than charting our own course.
The pace of technology is relentless, and yet it will never be slower than it is today. Every aspect of communications is subject to its transformative power and it is creating new opportunities, challenges, expectations and ethical questions.
So how to respond?
Strategy and collaboration
Well, I think we are often too focussed on tactics rather than strategy. We can be guilty of chasing the next new thing and lose sight of who we are trying to communicate with, and why.
As a result, we try to communicate too much. And in the resulting cacophony it can be difficult to discern a clear message about what the government stands for.
Endlessly increasing the number of communicators to cover every communications method and platform is neither likely to be good value for taxpayers, nor help the public discern what the government is doing on their behalf.
Rather than trying to communicate more of everything, I think the answer lies in clearer strategic prioritisation and consistency of message, more collaboration (including with the private sector), and a greater focus on audience research and insight.
The 350 organisations which are part of the GCS each have their own priorities and objectives. However, we can achieve more working together 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 their 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 together 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? We should have a shared communications plan where we agree, while leaving room for challenge where we don’t.
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.
Stakeholder engagement 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.
Listening and audience insight
The second area where we need to improve is one of the oldest but most neglected arts of communication. Listening. Again, modern technology gives us hitherto undreamt of riches in terms of audience data and insight. But it can be difficult to discern the signal from the noise.
Is what you’re reading on social media reflective of the views of the public, or just the views of your bubble? Perhaps it is nothing more than a reflection of the business model of the social media platform and the content that is most likely to keep you scrolling longer.
Genuine insight and listening skills are vital for government communications and for good policy making. Are people gaining or losing confidence in the measures the government is taking to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, and why? Do they understand the regulations in place, and if not why not? Are they following the rules? Do they believe other people are doing so?
This is not government by focus group but the use of sophisticated audience insight and behavioural science techniques to craft the right messages at the right time. Done well it can help the government to respond to the public’s concerns, develop clearer policy where there is confusion, and maintain public confidence and community well-being during a crisis.
Skills and capability
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. 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.
The conclusion I draw from that is that the era of the communications generalist is over. We increasingly need people with deep and specialist expertise. That means a reevaluation of our approach to learning and development, career progression and professional accreditation.
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 which 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. I want an open and inclusive environment where people know that different views, backgrounds and experience 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.
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.
For me, that means greater strategic prioritisation and consistency, more collaboration with partners who share our goals and values, an enhanced ability to listen to audiences, a constant revolution in our own skills and capability, a career offer that meets expectations for meaningful and purposeful work, and high ethical values that build public trust.
If you work in public sector comms then I will do my best to make you proud. If you don’t, but you share my passion for work that makes a real and positive difference, then come and join us. We always have a place for brilliant people who want to do work that matters.
- Image credit:
- Simon Baugh (1)