Comms staff strategy shifts focus to 'sustainable' headcount reductions and regional rebalancing

Government Communication Service pledges central team at Cabinet Office will shrink as part of three-year vision
GCS has pledged to set a target number of roles to be moved out of London. Photo: Elliott Brown/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Jim Dunton

18 May 2022

The Government Communication Service has outlined proposals to reduce the 7,200-strong headcount of the profession and pledged to set a target number of roles to be moved out of the capital to the regions.

Its just-published three-year strategy commits the service to “restructure and reduce the size” of the Cabinet Office-based central GCS team “with a focus on strategy and coordination, standards and capability, and expert and shared services”.

Almost two years after the announcement of the controversial Reshaping GCS programme, which aimed to centralise more government communications roles and reduce the size of the comms workforce, the new strategy signals a change of tack.

“We have learned from that programme that any reductions in headcount or resource need to be achievable and sustainable,” the new strategy says.

“While the centre can help develop design principles, provide challenge, and give practical support for implementing change, decisions on staffing sit with departments and [arm's-length bodies].”

The document says the number of communications staff in government has actually increased over the past two years, although it acknowledges that some organisations – including the Home Office, Ofsted, and the Insolvency Service – have made “considerable progress” in reducing numbers.

The Home Office reduced its full-time-equivalent comms staff by 39%, from 217 to 133; Ofsted cut the size of its comms team by 32%, from 38 to 26; and the Insolvency Service shrank its comms team by 42%, from 26 to 15.

According to the document, core departments reduced their comms headcount by 8% between 2020 and 2021, based on an audit conducted last August. Over the same period, the number of communications professionals working for ALBs increased by 3%.

GCS said it had no plans to enforce across-the-board percentage headcount cuts for government bodies. It said such a move would penalise departments that had already reduced headcount and rewarded those with “over-inflated” staff numbers.

GCS chief executive Simon Baugh said the profession needed to move with wider trends across the civil service and the nation as a whole.

“As times change, so must we,” he said. “As government communicators, it is our duty and responsibility to deliver life-changing communications to the public in the most efficient and effective way possible.”

Moving away from the capital

In line with the government’s Places for Growth drive to move 22,000 civil service roles away from the capital by the end of the decade, the GCS strategy pledges to set its own target for job relocations by next March.

It says 49% of GCS roles are currently based in London, compared with 41% across the rest of the UK, 2% abroad and the remainder in undefined locations.

The document notes that 81% of comms roles at central government departments are based in the capital, as are the “vast majority” of senior civil service comms roles.

“We will create more opportunities for people to develop their careers outside of London,” the strategy says.

“The business case for doing this is clear. It will enable us to better reflect the views of citizens in all parts of the country and allow us to draw on a wider pool of talent.

“We want GCS to be an exemplar function across the civil service in driving this change.”

 The document says next year’s location strategy will include a target for the number of GCS roles in Whitehall departments to be based outside of London by 2025.

It adds that directors of communications will also commit to advertising all SCS roles “in at least one location outside London”.

“We must focus on how we build sustainable career pathways outside London, with an emphasis on promoting pathways to the senior civil service without having to work in Whitehall,” it says.

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