By Joshua.Chambers

30 May 2012

In the past, government campaigns have sometimes resembled a Tower of Babel, with dozens of voices talking about their own ideas. Joshua Chambers examines the emerging plans to bring coherence to communications

‘Make do and mend’. ‘Stop, look, listen’. ‘Your country needs you!’ Government communications campaigns are often the most innovative and iconic around. But big changes are afoot, and public information will never quite be the same again.

For a start, the in-house agency that produced many memorable public information campaigns – the Central Office of Information (COI) – has been scrapped. The government no longer has a substantial, in-house communications provider, and government will now commission all of its major campaigns rather than create them.

Change isn’t limited to one organisation alone: communications professionals across government must alter their approach. Previously, government communications spending was controlled by departments – but at its worst, this allowed uncoordinated campaigns and duplicated efforts to go unchallenged. Therefore, the government has set up a new system of centralised spending controls, cross-departmental hubs, and a yearly communications plan to ensure greater co-ordination and overall impact.

This new approach is encapsulated in the government’s GREAT campaign, which aims to boost British tourism and businesses both domestically and overseas. The campaign promotes areas that previously would have fallen under the remit of different departments: for example, it plugs music festivals and museums for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; UK goods and services for the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; and our reputation overseas for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. By combining spending from those departments, and ensuring that they work together in the common interest, the campaign’s posters, videos, and online initiatives are intended to realise the objectives of all in a more cost-effective way.

From 1 April all departments have been required to follow this approach. As it starts to have an impact, CSW has examined the strategy and assessed what civil servants will be expected to do, and how departmental communications will change.

Out with the old
When ministers first came into government, they expressed severe misgivings about the communications arrangements in place. Given the need for efficiency savings, the area presented an opportunity for reform and savings.

Speaking last week at the Agile Government Communications event – run in conjunction with CSW publisher Dods – Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: “Look back on the last decade and the story of government communications is too often one of waste, inefficiency and extravagance. Too often taxpayer money was splurged on expensive, unnecessary marketing and advertising campaigns.”

Further, while COI did produce some memorable public sector campaigns, it did not have responsibility for commissioning or coordinating many of them. Instead, departments frequently took responsibility for their own efforts. Incoming coalition ministers complained of a “blizzard of uncoordinated communications,” Jenny Grey, the government’s executive director of communications, told a Post Office seminar earlier this year.

Matt Tee, the now-departed communications permanent secretary, was commissioned to review the procedures last January. He recommended scrapping the COI, replacing it with an organisation that had much greater powers and control over departmental communications campaigns. The government decided to scrap COI, which happened at the end of the last financial year – but rather than putting in place a beefed-up alternative, it decided to outsource the advertising function altogether.

Spending on private sector campaigns was centralised, meanwhile, by the Efficiency and Reform Group. Previously, “anybody could spend on marketing and communications as they saw fit, and not everything was challenged by the COI or their departmental director of communications,” according to Sean Larkins, head of government communication policy and capability in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office. The controls meant that any expenditure over £100,000 had to go through a committee process to get approval, he explains, while smaller projects had to gain the permission of the departmental communications director. The controls ended up causing a huge drop in expenditure on the purchase of communications services, from £213m in 2009-10 to £48m in 2010-11, with a concurrent loss of over 1,300 jobs. Maude has said that the total saving in 2010-11 was £400m.

In with the new
Government’s near-cessation of communications spending was temporary, however. Grey said last week that communications spending is likely to increase to over £200m a year. How that money is spent will differ markedly from previous arrangements, however, and there will be a much greater focus on value for money. “We’ve made the savings so far from simply cutting the spend. What we want to do in future is be able to generate more effect in our communications, but still against a very low cost,” Maude tells CSW.

To do this, the spending controls have been given a permanent place in the new communications process. And to oversee these controls, Number 10 and the Cabinet Office merged their communications teams together under Grey’s leadership.

In future, Grey’s team will set the communications direction for all of central government, working through seven communications hubs that combine departmental efforts. For example, the Cabinet Office is working with the Department for Education on choice in public services, while the communities department is working with the energy, transport and environment departments on sustainability and community issues (for details see box). “One of the reasons for these hubs was to share expertise because our numbers have gone down,” Grey explained.

The plan
The government is also creating a communications plan, which will set out all of its communication efforts for the forthcoming year – although Grey tells CSW that “there will no doubt be changes, because stuff happens in government.” The cross-departmental communication hubs will be charged with implementing this plan, which is currently awaiting ministerial approval.

Maude tells CSW that the plan ensures that communications will now fit in with the ‘tight’ part of his ‘tight-loose’ agenda, where control over policy making is devolved but control over processes is centralised. “Strategic communications have to be tight. Any organisation will say: ‘You do not allow every part of the organisation to be pumping messages out in a random, uncoordinated way,” he says. “We as central government –and I’m not talking about the NHS, local government, police or the wider public sector, which will have growing autonomy – should not be putting out different messages to the same target audiences at the same time. It does not make sense.”

“There has never been any function in government that works out which messages we are trying to get to which audiences at which time,” he adds. “This won’t be perfect because it’s new and hasn’t all been done before, but it at least makes sense to give it a go.”

Can they do it?
As Grey’s team starts to look ahead at future plans, it wants to make sure that it understands the capabilities of departmental communications teams following the seismic changes to their staffing levels and expenditure. Consequently, Larkins has started a series of communications ‘capability reviews’, which will run for 18 months and analyse all central government departments (see news, p1).

“We will review all major departments’ communications functions to ensure that they’re doing the right communications activity in the right way, and have the right skills to deliver those,” he tells CSW. “Rather than being seen as a big stick, [the reviews are] a helping hand. There are centres of excellence and good approaches across departments. We want to identify where there’s good stuff going on, and share that.” The first department to be reviewed was the MoD, and once all departments have been analysed the reports will be published on the Government Communications Network website.

Enforcing collaboration
One of the biggest challenges faced under the previous communications regime was trying to get departments to collaborate. In order to ensure closer cross-departmental working, there is a new delivery board to set the overall direction and work through tricky issues. This board contains ministers and officials.

One problem that could arise is that of departments that benefit indirectly from another organisation’s campaign proving reluctant to contribute to the cost. How will Grey get departments to pay their fair share? “The delivery board is part of that, but essentially, it’s basically corralling [their] existing plans for spending [into joint programmes] and doing that with a number of techniques, starting with charm and persuasion,” she says. Might this result in a bout of ministerial wrangling? “It won’t be ministerial wrangling at all, but no doubt there will be discussions about where we put our money and whether we’re putting our money into the right areas,” she replies, diplomatically.

If Grey’s extensive charm and persuasiveness aren’t sufficient, the government also has a hefty stick in the form of its spending controls. Without approval, departments can’t spend the money, so they’ll simply have to collaborate with others on communications projects, she says.

The private sector welcomes the government’s more coordinated approach. Speaking at the communications event, Nicola Mendelsohn, the president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, said that “it was good to hear the minister being more selective about which campaigns to support, and about what to prioritise. The Cabinet Office must ensure that campaigns are not duplicating assets and targeting the same audiences, with multiple messages in the same period, so that the campaigns created have the best chance of landing successfully.”

Tweeting not twittering
Mendelsohn also claimed that the internet represents “the greatest change in communications since Guttenburg’s invention of the printing press in 1440” – and while the telephone, radio and television have been somewhat significant changes in the intervening period, certainly social media will require government to increase the number of mediums it uses.

Social media is much freer, more chaotic, and therefore less easy to control than traditional forms of media. However, when asked by CSW whether social media activity also fits into the ‘tight’ part of his ‘tight-loose’ vision, Maude is clear, saying: “Yes, absolutely.” The Government Digital Service (GDS) has also been clear with civil servants that they must remember their affiliation when using tools such as Twitter or Facebook. The GDS has just published social media guidelines explaining that civil servants must abide by the Civil Service Code when online, as they would in the office.

However, despite the apparent perils of social media sites, Emer Coleman, deputy director of digital engagement at the GDS, told the communications event that departments must enthusiastically embrace social media as part of their campaigns. “UK citizens are the number one users of Facebook and we come into the top three users of Twitter. Clearly our citizens are focussed on digital, and we need to go where they are,” she said.

Furthermore, government must have a new approach when using new tools. “We don’t use this to broadcast; we use social media tools as a mechanism of engaging – whether that’s listening to their concerns, or having conversations,” Coleman said. She added that social media is vital as a part of the government’s transparency agenda, allowing departments to be more accountable and answerable to citizens and service users.

Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, has taken the lead and embraced social media as a way of communicating better with the public and his employees. Kerslake has over 3,500 followers on Twitter, and also writes a blog. Further, he recently used the social networking site Facebook to talk to prospective applicants to the civil service Fast Stream.

A final change to the government’s approach is to use behavioural economics as a part of communications campaigns. Grey brought this up at the communications event, saying that these techniques are a “great, great thing for government.” She did, however, add that “it’s slightly irritating at times to think that some of the insights we’ve had in communications that have come from social psychology are now being taken up because they’ve been taken up by the economists.”

Buying messages
Given that government has outsourced its advertising function, clearly procurement is going to be a huge part of the new communications strategy. Consequently, the government has set up a dedicated team in the Government Procurement Service (GPS).

Most of the existing communications procurement frameworks for government will expire in the next 12 months. The first two new frameworks will launch in September and November; they will, according to GPS executive director Martin Chown, reflect a new approach that will cover broader campaigns, put fewer burdens on suppliers, and have a shorter duration. In the meantime, departments can also procure on the spot for small projects that don’t require Cabinet Office approval.

Many suppliers at the event raised concerns with Chown about the new process, including concerns about access: will suppliers be able to meet with civil servants to understand what exactly they’re looking for? Speaking on behalf of the industry, Mendelsohn said that “we must create channels [to allow] access to key decision-makers early on, [giving] clarity of the brief. And as work develops, we must ensure that there is a two-way dialogue, which is essential to get feedback quickly on what’s working and what’s not.”

Responding to multiple questions from the audience about this point, Chown said that “it depends where we are in the pitch process: there are some issues with talking to parties when we’re in the procurement process. Francis Maude was right: in the past [procurement rules have] been used as a barrier to talking to people in a sensible way and bringing innovation into the public sector. Talking to suppliers about innovation, signing up to non-disclosure agreements if necessary, putting you in touch with the right departments, is absolutely what we need to do. Clearly we want to know about good ideas.”

Government has ideas of its own, and it intends to set them out in its annual plan for communications. Michael Warren, the head of campaigns and strategy in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, tells CSW that it should be ready in June. Then the new structures and systems in place will be put to the test. As Maude says, there may be teething problems. But civil servants must, as that old COI slogan said, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

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