Modernising communications – what can we learn from the Government Communication Service?

Modernising communications is one of the consultancy services I provide as I advise in-house communications departments and PR agencies on how they can modernise, innovate and improve.

The Institute for Government published a guest paper on Modernising the Government Communication Service written by Lee Cain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former Downing Street director of communications. I’ve taken a look at the recommendations to see if there is anything we can learn about how to modernise other public or private sector PR teams.

The paper was published a few days before the UK government announced a successor to Alex Aiken who is stepping down as executive director in charge of the Government Communication Service, but retaining his title and “leading the government’s vital communication work on priority areas that include the union, security and international issues”. His successor is Simon Baugh who will be the first chief executive of the Government Communication Service.

Modernising communications

The publication of a new paper on modernising the Government Communication Service raises the question of does it have any useful advice or ideas for the new CEO of GCS? The answer is perhaps. The Government Communication Service has some excellent people and has used this expertise to develop lots of brilliant professional guides, workflows, frameworks and tools to improve the way public relations and communications is conducted in government. This doesn’t mean that it can’t improve and innovate. The reason it has been able to publish these guides is because under Alex Aiken’s leadership it was constantly modernising communications to innovate and improve.

With Ukrainian prime minister advisor Iryna Zolotarevych and communications heads and team members for Ukrainian government cabinet ministers.

GCS is incredibly generous with this knowledge and publishes most of these modernising communications guides on the Government Communication Service website. I have often used GCS resources with my clients in the public, not-for-profit and private sectors. I’ve also worked with GCS to deliver training and professional development for overseas governments. For example, I worked in Kyiv to help the head of communications for the Ukrainian prime minister by delivering modernising communications training to the head of communications for all the cabinet ministers using my own, the CIPR’s, AMEC’s and GCS’s communications playbooks and frameworks.

GCS was also at the forefront of both helping to develop and implement AMEC’s various resources on improving and modernising communication measurement and evaluation. I still have my original copy of the first GCS Evaluation Framework.

GCS is at the forefront of pioneering best practice in the measurement and evaluation of communications. Speaking at the AMEC global summit in Barcelona GCS head Alex Aiken made the bold assertion that: “I believe measurement to be the most important communication discipline“.

The question isn’t does GCS need to modernise, as every communication team needs to do this constantly, but are the ideas in the Institute for Government paper the best ones? The problem with the paper is it is written it from the perspective of someone who was in charge of political communications for the prime minister. GCS is part of the Civil Service and its role is to deliver government communications. The theory in UK government and politics is that civil servants are politically neutral and shouldn’t engage in political communications and campaigns.

There are numerous challenges with this theory as good communication is an integral part of developing good policy in the first place. Communication isn’t just about blasting out messages, but is about using data and analytics for insight to develop a detailed understanding of audiences and stakeholders. This insight and understanding is essential to developing robust policy. One of the strengths of GCS is its use of research and data to develop communication strategies and campaigns. The A in its OASIS planning framework stands for audience where it stresses the importance of understanding it.

This link between policy and communications and the fact that government policy is decided by politicians and implemented by civil servants means, in reality, it is difficult to keep government and political communications entirely separate. On the whole GCS does an excellent job of doing so, despite executive director Alex Aiken’s political background (he worked in communications for Conservative Central Office before entering the public sector as head of communications for Westminster City Council).

The problem with the IfG paper’s analysis is in identifying the issues with GCS it doesn’t acknowledge that many of the problems identified are political communication and policy problems. If GCS’s work “lacks strategic capability” as the paper claims then perhaps this is because of a weak strategic direction from politicians (and their advisors, like the paper’s author Lee Cain).

If we compare the author’s expertise and experience with that of Alex Aiken, or his successor Simon Baugh, we discover that Cain is a former journalist who became a media manager for a large law firm before a brief spell doing broadcast media for Vote Leave and then entered politics as a special advisor. He served as Downing Street director of communications for just a year and a half.

In contrast, Aiken has been in public relations and communications since 1992 and spent 13 years as director of communications and strategy for Westminster City Council. Simon Baugh brings more than 20 years’ experience of professional communications including in consultancy, private sector in-house and for the last five years as head of communications for three different government departments. If I was heading up GCS I don’t think Cain would be the first person I’d be turning to for advice on how to modernise communications.

The reforms proposed in the IfG’s Modernising the Government Communication Service include:

  • Strengthening the GCS by bringing it under one umbrella organisation with more senior leadership.
  • Restoring civil servants as the lead press/official spokesperson in their departments to reduce the reliance on special advisers.
  • Reducing the numbers of comms officers across Whitehall from 8,000 to fewer than 2,000 (eventually capping at 30–40 per department) but with increased remunerations and training.
  • Increasing the focus on digital and broadcast communication, putting it on par with print.
  • Renewing the government’s commitment to hold regularly televised press briefings, fronted by the prime minister or his press secretary, to increase accountability.

In effect, the paper is calling for a reduction in size and greater centralisation of government communications. In theory, these might appear to be attractive ideas, but they are fraught with difficulty.

Centralisation risks blurring the lines between political and government communications even more. Making the “lead press/official spokesperson” in each department a civil servant sounds like a move to make communications less political. In fact, it is the opposite, because policy is political it would mean the civil servant having to explain the politics of the policy as well as the process. The benefit of a special adviser doing this is they are free to (indeed meant to) make political statements, but aren’t barred from talking about policy. Civil servants are just meant to talk about policy and never politics.

Another key proposal of the IfG paper is reducing the size of GCS. Even before the paper it had already been announced that the number of professional communicators is going to be reduced, which is a victory for those who equate communications with spin and publicity, or like most mainstream media journalists don’t have a good understanding of what professional public relations entails.

A key role of GCS isn’t just to communicate government policies to the public but to “drive behaviour change”. Communications should always be about making an impact on tangible objectives. Ensuring carbon reduction by persuading people to fly less, drive less and heat their homes more effectively. Promoting health and fitness to reduce the burden on the NHS. Promoting British manufacturing and services to generate exports and increase employment. Promoting skills and training to improve productivity and competitiveness. Reducing the size and role of GCS might appear to save taxpayers’ money, but at a much greater cost in depriving the government of all the benefits professional communications brings.

There are, however, some practical recommendations in the Modernising the Government Communication Service paper. Some of these are already happening (just read the GCS blog for examples), but perhaps could be given greater focus and emphasis. Two of his proposals are based very much on modernising communications and the future of public relations.

Embrace new technology

By calling on government communications to “continue to embrace new technology – producing and distributing the government’s own content and engaging directly with the public”, the paper is actually recommending an increased emphasis on owned media and shared media. It does acknowledge the danger that this decreases transparency and accountability.

In reality, it again exposes the tension between political and policy communications. For ministerial communications, owned media is potentially a huge benefit politically, but potentially dangerous for democracy. A minister’s video statement published on a government website or social media channels can easily be shared by political supporters. The minister doesn’t need to be subject to the accountability of questions from journalists, even the relatively stage-managed questions of a solo pooled interview (where one journalist’s interview is shared with all broadcasters).

For policy communications and campaigns, owned media can be one of the most effective channels. It enables more complex messages to be shared without the distortion, bias and misunderstanding that comes with earned media. This distortion often isn’t for nefarious reasons, but that when journalists summarise the content they usually aren’t subject-matter experts and don’t know the objectives behind the content (and it’s not their job to support them anyway).

Digital first

The digital first mantra is one that many communications teams and PR agencies embrace, but the reality is often quite different. The paper says “all of its members should be digitally literate as a core part of their daily function”. On this, I absolutely agree. When I started in public relations 30 years ago, writing was considered to be a core skill, as was being able to make effective telephone calls. Communication is far more than just writing, but writing is still a core skill today. However, the ability to produce videos and design graphics, and to use all social media platforms are also all core skills today.

This must apply to every member of the team so video, graphics and social media aren’t something that are just done by specialists. There is still a need for specialists as there is always a need for high quality professional video and graphics. But shooting, editing and captioning a good quality video of someone saying a quote should be no different to writing their quote in a news release. Creating a social media graphic to illustrate the quote and writing an accessible social media post aren’t the remit of social media experts but a core skill of every communications professional.

The paper cites the daily COVID-19 news conferences and the fact “there was nobody with the ability to create slides for the daily press conference”. This is astounding as simple design and data visualisation is a core basic skill that every individual in a communications or PR team should have the ability to do. There are advanced design and data-visualisation skills that can ensure graphics are of the highest quality, easy to understand and hard to misinterpret, but those slides weren’t. They were often so simple and basic that everyone, from the head of communication down to the most junior team member should have been able to create them easily.

The paper says: “The government should develop a centralised best-practice plan for digital, with teams regularly monitored and reviewed with a central analytics unit. High-performing teams need to be identified with a view to standardise and replicate their success.” It doesn’t appear to know or acknowledge that GCS is already better at this than many private sector organisations.

If you want to find good guides to creating accessible social media content, writing effective emails, measuring internal email campaigns, or how to create a podcast, then the GCS website is a good place to start as it has guides and blog posts on all of these and more. Under Aiken’s leadership GCS already has centralised best practice plans including for how to use effective measurement and evaluation (which is more than simply analytics).

Communication strategy

The paper is riddled with contradictions which mean some proposals aren’t actually ‘modernising communications’ but more like returning to the dark ages of communications. The paper complains about the plethora of “strategic communication” titles, but then makes recommendations that indicate the author doesn’t understand strategic communications.

It says “Getting enough of the right kind of media coverage should be seen as key in annual appraisals”. It then lambasts the focus on “media management” and “the longstanding obsession with the daily news cycle, instead of giving greater weight to strategic communications.”

The ludicrous idea of appraising communications professionals based on the “right kind of media coverage” betrays a lack of understanding of the strategic value of communications. Media coverage is simply an output and therefore fairly irrelevant unless it leads to out-takes (the target audience being aware of it, understanding it and remembering it), outcomes (the target audience changing what it believes or knows) and impact (does the target audience actually do something).

For all the talk of communication strategy and modernisation the paper is highly focused on traditional media relations and earned media as they make up at least part of seven of the 10 recommendations. The primary preoccupation is broadcast media.

Despite the bluster about communications, the paper constantly confuses it with media relations. Indeed, it often dismisses other forms of communication. It says: “The bulk of these cuts should come from areas outside the press office itself – with a return to the primary function of the communications team to run an efficient media operation, building relationships with the media, placing positive stories that reinforce the government narrative and quickly rebutting inaccurate stories.”

The paper also appears to have an issue with internal communications and refers to it being “over staffed” and should be “scaled down”. This is at odds with what many of the most effective organisations do where they recognise that happy, informed, satisfied employees are the way to improve services and productivity.

Single employer for all communications staff

Another of the paper’s recommendations is that the Government Communication Service should be the single employer of all communication staff. It means not just communications staff in government departments, but also those in arms length bodies.

This is a superficially attractive idea, but one that is fraught with practical difficulties.

I have seen public and private sector organisations take this approach and attempt to modernise communications by centralising all communications. The are numerous benefits of this approach such as:

  • Reduce duplication of resources and can enable the employment of specialists and experts whose skills can be shared and might not be justified in a disparate structure.
  • Ability to easily deploy people to where they are most needed during at time-sensitive or mission-critical moments.
  • Creating clearer career paths.

The practical reality in most organisations is that ‘leaders’ want to control communication in their fiefdom and breaking this grip requires more than a simple reorganisation. The leaders might be government ministers, local council cabinet members, principal secretaries, department directors, or managing directors or vice presidents of divisions or regions. They will all want communications people who report to and are answerable to them. If you take their comms people away, then eventually they will appoint someone with a different job title, but who effectively is their comms person.

Communication leadership

A perennial question is should public relations or communications be on the board or a member of the C-suite. The paper tackles a similar issue by proposing strengthening the leadership of GCS with the new head acting as a chief operating officer (COO) with three director general roles under it. As it happens, the newly announced head of GCS will have the title of CEO.

The three director general roles proposed don’t necessarily relate well to the other recommendations in the paper. The three roles are to cover research and insight, marketing and digital (paid media), and media relations (earned media). The obvious gap is owned media, which was one of the key recommendations.

The one that makes most sense is research and insight, as this cuts across all communications activity. It is an essential prerequisite to providing communication input in to policy making, planning effective communications and measuring its impact. It makes sense to have this at the most senior level with an expert team that other communications professionals can utilise.

One valid point the paper makes is that communications professionals should be on a par with policy professionals. This is a point I strongly agree with. But for this to happen, it means communication professionals need to be as qualified and knowledgable as policy professionals. It is not enough for communications and PR professionals to cite experience. They need to be able to evidence qualifications and continuous professional development (CPD) leading to accreditation such as being a chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. The GCS CPD system already maps to the CIPR CPD system so GCS staff with three years of GCS CPD can apply to be assessed for chartered status. The need for qualifications and accreditation applies equally to the public and private sectors as well as to both in-house and agency.

Simon Baugh is new chief executive of UK Government Communication Service

The appointment of a new head of the Government Communication Service means that the modernisation, innovation and change we’ve seen over the last 10 years will continue under new professional leadership.

I’ve known Simon Baugh since the late 90s he was my lodger for a couple of years when he was a student at the University of Leeds where he studied politics and parliamentary studies. Simon brings a wealth of varied experience to the role and is committed to improving professional learning and development as he is chair of GCS Curriculum and Standards board.

Simon Baugh started his career working in the political office of the AEEU trade union (now part of Unite) which at the time was headed by Tom Watson, who went on to become deputy leader of the Labour Party. He then moved into the private sector at communications and public affairs consultancy AS Biss, before spending nine years in various communication roles (public affairs, internal communications, external communications) at Heathrow Airport and then five years as head of communications at three different government departments – Transport, Exiting the European Union, and most recently the Home Office.

As chief executive of GCS Simon will be responsible for professional communicators across 350 government departments and agencies. Its role is to communicate policies to the public and drive behaviour change in support of its objectives.

“I am hugely honoured to have been appointed to the new role of chief executive of the Government Communication Service. Having worked in three government departments I know we have some of the most brilliant, innovative and hard-working people across UK communications. My role is to make sure the GCS continues to help people do amazing work that builds public confidence and delivers positive change. My focus will be on how we continuously improve the work we do for ministers and the public, develop the talent, skills and capability we need for the future, and create a positive culture where everyone can flourish. I want to take forward the Reshaping GCS programme with a positive vision of how change can help GCS members in their roles, deliver better more joined-up communications, and provide value for taxpayers.”

Simon Baugh, chief executive, Government Communication Service

Image credits: GCS (Simon Baugh), House of Commons photo by Gotta Be Worth It from Pexels, mobile phone photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels

One Reply to “Modernising communications – what can we learn from the Government Communication Service?”

  1. Good points, Stuart. Another point is the call for centralised leadership of all government communications and which would include ALBs.

    That would be difficult. There would be situations where the CE at the Regulator where you are placed is saying X but your new boss at GCS is telling you the line is anti-X. I’ve worked at a Regulator issuing comms that was directly critical of the Secretary of State’s published view.

    A good thing about GCS is the wealth of guides, etc that they publish and which we use elsewhere in the public sector. I just wish the LGA (I am currently doing local government comms) or the NHS (where I have also worked in comms) has such a central resource. Many times I have written guides or content from scratch when I know neighbouring councils must be doing the same thing (it’s not always easy to share).

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