Standards, Democracy and Communities: GCS Challenges for 2019

Blog post by Alex Aiken

Monday 14 January 2019

Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communications, sets out the challenges and opportunities for the Government Communication Service in 2019.

Alex Aiken

The New Year will be an historic one for the UK and a hugely important 12 months for the Government Communication Service.

The Prime Minister was clear about her ambitious domestic agenda in her New Year message. The long term Plan for Health, the next stage of the Industrial Strategy, a new approach to technical education and building more housing are all major policies which will require effective communication to help the public, businesses and communities understand how they can make the most of public services.

We also learnt about the well-deserved honours awarded to Sheila Mitchell, Director of Marketing at PHE (CBE) and Richard Stephenson, Director of Communication at the CAA (OBE). They join colleagues including Carol McCall, Conrad Bird and Selvin Brown whose public service in communication has been formally recognised.

We’re going through the planning process for the 2019-20 Government Communication Plan and the range and value of work proposed by departments and agencies is impressive and necessary to meet the challenges the nation faces. The increasing number of campaign proposals across government – around 160 – is partly driven by EU Exit work but also a result of communication and policy staff, ministers and officials working together to see where public relations, external affairs and marketing can be used to help deliver public service goals. I’m looking forward to seeing the new DfE campaign to recruit apprentices, DfT’s ‘Mates Matter’ anti-drink driving initiative, the next stage of MHCLG’s Northern Powerhouse campaign and the renewed Home Office work to combat knife crime.

The volume of this work means that clarity of objectives, understanding of audience and insightful evaluation are critical. We’ve strengthened the GCS Strategy and Evaluation Council with a new membership and remit to help government communicators target and assess campaigns more effectively. We’ll also be publishing lessons from the best campaigns of 2018 next month. For those who might struggle with evaluation, I’d highlight the advice of David Rockland, who served until last year on the GCS Evaluation Council: “There is no reason to ask whether PR can be measured. It really boils down to three questions. First, did you reach the right people with the right message? Second, based on having reached them, did they change in some way such as awareness, perception, behaviour, recommendation etc? Third, how did those changes benefit your organisation?”

The 2018 Civil Service Awards lauded great examples of campaign communication and evaluation. From a new and effective approach to prison officer recruitment, which broke the 2,500 target, a fresh campaign for tax collection which achieved record returns, a successful digital drive for inward investment adding up to £100m of deals to the £4bn return to the UK from the GREAT campaign. All delivered a significant return on investment. There are many more examples of our impact and there will be more ambitious examples in the new plan that we will publish in the Spring.

The Director of Communication Group met this week and discussed our ambitions for the year ahead. I set out three priorities – raising standards, strengthening our democracy and reassuring communities. Each of these objectives is supported by tangible activity that I believe will help the profession and serve the country.

The renewed drive to raise standards will include our Accelerate digital training programme, the Year of Marketing initiative and the GCS 2020 programme, which we will launch at the GCS Leadership conference in February.

Work on strengthening our democracy covers current activity to maintain the Union, tackle disinformation and strengthen electoral integrity. But it also includes the work of GCS teams such as the Rapid Response Unit, our international projects and new guidance from GCS Campaigns to explain how public institutions can build and maintain trust with the public they serve.

The third area, of reassuring communities covers the major campaigns we’ll run on EU Exit, the Economy, social policy and Global Britain where timely, relevant and compelling public information can help people make choices that improve their lives.

We also discussed the need to ensure that we listen and respond to opinion in a way that is consistently effective. There is a wealth of data about attitudes, preferences, tastes and opinions and variations by demographics and location. Using this data and creating insight enables us to shape policies and communication and ensure that we show people that we have heard and understand the challenges in the year ahead.

We have many more activities planned as part of our campaign and capability programmes in 2019. The Ministerial Board will meet at the end of the month to agree the draft Government Communication Plan. We’re developing an updated Modern Communication Operating Model. Our leadership development schemes go from strength to strength, as I saw at the graduation of the 2018 Inspire cohort. But while the challenges of Brexit, the NHS and disinformation are those of the year ahead, we should reflect and hold to the values of the civil service and the wisdom provided by generations of government communicators. One of my predecessors, Kenneth Grubb, Controller of the Ministry of Information over 1941-6, describes our work in a way that stands the strength of time: “Information services … are a recognition of a certain maturity in a democracy. They testify to a society where facts are essential to the formation of views, where prejudice is to be combated by reason and where policies should be explained if they are to be understood”

The Government Communication Service is in a strong position at the start of the year. Our major campaigns are on track, our professional development programmes performing well and our plans for 2019 and 2020 are in a good state. And we are ready to communicate what is required to keep people informed as we leave the European Union. Over the next few weeks I’ll visit most of the major departments and agencies to test the leadership, morale and quality of work of government communicators. I’ll also visit Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and several English regions before Easter. I hope, and expect that as over the last 101 years, government communication can play a proper and effective role in enhancing our democracy and public discussion through the power of accurate information.