Alex Aiken, executive director of government communications, on 2018’s GREAT birthday and John Buchan’s 39 steps to turn on Christmas lights
With the end of 2018 fast approaching, we asked the UK's top civil servants to look back at the year, outline their goals for 2019 – and tell us who would turn on their town’s Christmas lights.
What was your highlight of 2018?
There were many highlights, but professionally, one I would pick out was the seventh birthday of the GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland campaign. I always feel that this cross-government campaign, started under Jeremy Heywood, is undervalued. Over the past seven years it has generated nearly £4bn worth of benefit to the country in terms of trade, tourism and students studying in the UK. It sees ministers, civil servants and diplomats working together around the world with the private sector to promote the country. There are around 120 GREAT events each month – including the fabulous Hong Kong Festival this year – and it is welcomed from the Americas to Asia and Europe because it expertly explains what an exciting, inspiring country we are and the mutual benefit that comes from trade, study and tourism.
What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2018?
Managing the sheer volume of activity and consistently producing quality work that makes a great public service. This year there are a record 143 campaigns that make up the Government Communication Plan. Each of them needs effective communication, from preparing to exit the European Union to the grand challenges of the Industrial Strategy, explaining the Budget, Universal Credit and changes to the NHS. I’ve been particularly pleased with the way my colleagues have tackled some of the big public service recruitment campaigns, especially those for prison officers, teachers and the Royal Navy. This volume of work requires all of us to consistently meet the requirements of the civil service leadership statement to be inspiring, confident and empowering leaders. Achieving that is hard, but necessary.
What are the main challenges facing your function in the coming year?
The Government Communication Service faces a specific challenge around tackling disinformation and the threats we see to our democracy. The impact of the Salisbury poisonings and the 35 fake narratives deployed by the Russian state illustrate the need for the civil service to protect public debate, inform our citizens and give people reassurance about the future. We’ve been doing this for 100 years, since the foundation of the Ministry of Information in 1918. The history we published this year of the first hundred years of government communication is designed to inspire colleagues to meet and master the issue of communicating in a digital, networked, social, data-driven world. We work with highly effective institutions like the National Cyber Security Centre to explain and counteract cyber threats. It will take responsible actions from companies like Google and Facebook, a reasoned and robust public debate and confident public service communication to help achieve that goal. The director of Communication Group recently met with the Office of National Statistics to consider how we best ensure statistics, as the foundation of our public discussions, are properly presented in the national discussion.
Which celebrity or historical figure would you choose to turn on the Christmas lights in your town, and why?
I live in Pimlico, London and we have our Christmas light ceremony at the start of December in Tachbrook Market. I think I’d choose John Buchan, the novelist and my predecessor as the first director of government communication, to turn on the lights. He wrote the memo to Lloyd George in 1917 calling for a government information service which would “[put] the Allied case…and the explanation of the British effort in Allied countries”. I’ve been fortunate to build on the legacy of some giant figures in British public relations and marketing from Buchan to Stephen Tallents, Thomas Fife Clark and more recently Gus O’Donnell and Howell James. All of them would be welcome as 100 years on we are still determined to explain the government’s case accurately and with integrity!
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