The newest profession in the Government Communication Service focuses on improving the way government talks directly to key stakeholders. Jonathan Owen speaks to members of the new External Affairs Forum to find out more
As trust in government dwindles, and with the media landscape changed beyond recognition, a new type of government comms professional is coming to the fore – the external affairs practitioner.
Previously dubbed “strategic engagement”, this part of the communications function service has been neglected until now. But an external affairs forum, set up and chaired by Suzanne Edmond, group director of communications at the Department for Transport, has spent the past two years developing new guidance on external affairs.
It is expected to be released in the coming weeks and will inform an updated version of the Government Communication Service’s Modern Communications Operating Model.
Within the civil service there “was a nod” to having an external affairs team “but it wasn’t well defined and there wasn’t a group of people who really understood exactly what this stood for and what it did,” Edmond says.
The external affairs forum was established – in 2016 – to address this. It meets every two months or so and is made up of the heads of external affairs from government departments.
“It’s how you cut through that noise to reach people. We are looking to communicate to the public and trusted advocates are a really good way of getting information out”
Suzanne Edmond, DfT
The new guidance developed by the forum defines external affairs as “building and maintaining relationships with influential individuals and organisations for the public benefit.”
It argues that having a dialogue with those outside of government can not only “help achieve a better balance – encouraging supportive voices, but also answering concerns and mitigating criticism before the debate plays out in the public eye. Pre-briefing trusted partners under embargo allows them more time to consider their response.”
Early engagement with stakeholders and listening to their views can result in better policy, according to the guidance.
It recommends that all departments have external affairs teams and strategies and suggests having ministerial visits under the remit of external affairs. “This helps ensure that, where appropriate, proactive stakeholder engagement is considered as a part of ministerial visits.”
Having developed the new guidance, the forum’s main focus now is to promote the profession and “also to coordinate engagement and share intelligence and the best practice that we do,” Edmond says. In terms of developing new entrants into external affairs, there are specific training and development modules through GCS including an introduction to external affairs, and Advanced training is also being developed.
To help promote the new specialism, the GCS has produced a short film in which civil servants set out the benefits of external affairs.
One such individual, James Roscoe, director for communications and stakeholders, Department for Exiting the European Union, says external affairs is important “because policymaking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens to real people and people are interested in what we are doing and want to have an influence over it.”
This comes at a time when barely one in three Britons (36%) trust the government, a figure unchanged for the past three years, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. The report, now in its 18th year, measures trust across a number of institutions.
Almost half (47%) of people believe that government is the most broken of the country’s major institutions, with the media cited by 17%; business by 10%; and NGOs by 7%.
Government is also seen as the most corrupt institution, with 40%, compared to 27% who cited the media, 15% who cited business and 6% who think NGOs are the most corrupt institutions. On top of this, a third of respondents believe government abuses its power more than any other pillar of society.
“Trust in not just government but key institutions is on the decline and it’s getting messages out from audiences that people trust and so that’s absolutely a driver in this as well,” Edmond says.
She says the changing media landscape, with newspapers in decline and people relying on social media to get their news, has driven the need to think about comms differently. “Some of our traditional advertising campaigns are becoming less effective,” she says.
“It’s how you cut through that noise to reach people. We are looking to communicate to the public and if you can find some of those trusted advocates that’s a really good way of actually being able to get information out to the general public.”
Sasha Fuller, head of external affairs at the Department for Work and Pensions, agrees that in a changing landscape, relationships with key organisations will be ever more important. “The pace of change in technology and how people interact and communicate will continue to accelerate,” she says, “but one channel that will continue to be relevant and influence media coverage and public debate will be the voices of the organisations, charities and businesses that work closely with people from all parts of the country.
“These organisations are the ones we aim to work with as part of our external affairs profession, so we can bring valuable insight about what people in the UK are thinking and feeling, and as a way of communicating with the people who care about our policies.”
Fuller adds that this should never be viewed as a one-way transaction
“Our role in the EU exit is really important, I think we are doing a lot more than listening to people: we’re actually working with them to reassure them, understand what their concerns are and feed that back into the department” Andra Stan, Defra
“There’s no one right way to build good relationships, but I think the considered, two-way, and insight-led approach and professionalism with which we’ve gone about developing the new specialism can offer benefits to the rest of the civil service, particularly for those whose roles involve understanding what the public thinks. One of the key aims is to also open up departments to stakeholders and the public, which can only improve the work of government.”
“Businesses and charities consistently ask us to help improve government join up, and this is something we’ve started to do at DWP between communications teams, those involved in policy development and our front-line colleagues so that we can better serve the public.”
The wider civil service should view external affairs as a resource. “At transport, where we’ve got lots of people engaging on lots of different local issues, we can take the big picture and we can advise on the best ways to engage, as well as different intelligence that we’re picking up through our conversations and our horizon scanning.”
In terms of policy, external affairs helps “officials reach their audiences,” according to Edmond.
One challenge is to build up the profile and reputation of external affairs. “A lot of the teams are quite small and it’s important for us to show our value,” she comments.
Another is “attracting and recruiting the right people” from within the civil service as well as making government external affairs an attractive proposition for people in the private sector.
She rejects the notion that external affairs is a form of lobbying. “It’s different to public affairs because we don’t lobby ourselves, that would not be a good use of taxpayers’ money, but at the heart of public affairs is relationships and partnerships and that’s really what external affairs is all about.”
Edmond mentions the recently announced rail review as an example, where passenger groups and industry associations were given the news directly. “We don’t just leave it for them to hear about it from the media and that’s a really big part of the communications, which is having the conversation directly with them rather than them hearing about it when everyone reads about it in the newspapers.”
A similar approach is taken at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Andra Stan, the department’s deputy head of external affairs, says: “We identify and engage proactively with external organisations who have an interest across Defra’s portfolio to build long term partnerships and two-way dialogue, which can support our strategic communications and policy delivery.”
A collaborative approach is resulting in “building more effective communications where there are joint opportunities to reach shared audiences on key policy moments.”
She adds: “We have an exciting challenge ahead where external affairs at Defra will continue to evolve, building upon the foundations laid over the last year, in particular to meet the demands of our EU exit communications.”
Brexit is dominating the work of external affairs teams and Edmond remarks: “Our role in the EU exit is really important, I think we are doing a lot more than listening to people: we’re actually working with them to reassure them, understand what their concerns are and feed that back into the department.”
Referring to the technical notices produced by the government on Brexit, she comments: “We [have been] speaking to business counterparts to explain to them what’s happening, when they are going to be published and so forth.”
In terms of the future of external affairs in the civil service, she says it is vital that the profession remain true to its principles. “We are about the relationships and the intelligence and the awareness, we are not there to get people to say nice things, I think that’s really important as we go forward.”