The Government of the United Kingdom has revolutionised the way it communicates online. In only a few years a single government domain was launched, GOV.UK, and the use of social media for communicating news and information about the Cabinet’s activity transformed.
Other governments around Europe, including from Romania, are looking at effective use of social media for communicating key Government messages to different types of audiences, both internally and externally, and are keen to learn.
After having Sean Larkins (@SeanLarkins1), Deputy Director of Government Communications at the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office for an interview on government communications from a strategic perspective, now we have a special interview focusing on the digital aspect of government communications.
Anthony Simon(@anthonysimon), Head of Digital Communications (@ukgovcomms) for 10 Downing Street (@number10gov) and the UK Cabinet Office(@cabinetofficeuk), was open to share with us his thoughts on the challenges and benefits of the digital medium for public administration in general, and on the success story of the British Government.
1. How do you see the evolution of the social media engagement of 10 Downing Street and the UK Cabinet Office in the last few years?
We have made some considerable changes to social media engagement. We’ve created content which is more interesting, such as by using graphics and photos. This has had the result that our content has been shared more frequently than ever before.
We’ve also done more to encourage our public servants to use social media to engage with the public. We can no longer be seen as faceless bureaucrats; we need to be listening, contributing and interacting with the people we serve. But we do it in a supportive environment, providing social media guidelines, so our staff have a better understanding of the benefits and risk of this approach.
2. What were the greatest challenges for the transition of Government communication into the digital age to be successful? And were the benefits of using digital channels for your institution’s communication?
The greatest challenges are for our communication to remain relevant, interesting and useful. A few years ago, we were not doing well against any of those points. The UK Government used to have hundreds of separate websites, which only served to confuse the user. We now have a single website for UK Government (GOV.UK). This provides a single place for all government content, services and transactions. It leads to a more seamless experience and means users get the information they need more quickly. Digital channels are now frequently the place where people go to first to get information. Government has risen to the challenge of using social media and websites to reach our audiences. The main challenges have been to ensure that our communicators are prepared for the digital age. In late 2013, we carried out a capability review of our digital communication. A panel of external experts told us that whilst government was doing better at digital communication; this was offset by the capability of our audiences rising at an even faster rate. We are now giving our communicators the support, guidance and training they need to improve their skills further.
3. What do you consider to be the three events, offline or online, during/for which the social media presence had a significant impact?
We have been part of several events which we have given a major boost with our digital presence. They include:
– London Olympics, 2012 – Government had its specialist comms unit responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the Games from a government perspective. This included a social media team who responded to questions from the media and public.
– G8 Summit, Northern Ireland 2013 – Cabinet Office and Downing Street led a social media team from the event. It had the objective in engaging with NGOs and charities – and it also achieved in its goal in making it the most talked about G8 summit online in history.
– NATO Summit, Wales 2014 – Cabinet Office and Downing Street were integrated into the main comms operation. Again, it achieved its ambition of being the most talked about NATO summit online in history.
4. How important do you consider having and regularly updating a social media strategy for Government communication? How did the social media policy take shape and what type of messages, post or replies determine a greater engagement from the accounts you and your team manage?
The strategy is deliberately uncomplicated to make it as accessible as possible for all staff. The social media policy was developed in collaboration with colleagues across government, including Government Digital Service, Human Resources and Propriety and Ethics. The extent to which the level of engagement takes place is the responsibility for the department or team that runs it.
5. What do you think is the impact of digital communication on the relationship with traditional media? Is mainstream media following and using your digital accounts to get their information?
We are definitely now using social media to shape the traditional news agenda. There are now many announcements made that go via a digital first. For example, when the Prime Minister announces new ministers, the announcements are now made via the @Number10gov account. This reaches nearly 3 million accounts, rather than just a narrow group of stakeholders.
6. What is, in your opinion, the next frontier for Government communication on social media? And what does 2015 bring in terms of opportunities for 10 Downing Street and the UK Cabinet Office?
Visualisation will probably be the main theme for 2015. It’s about creating content which is engaging and visually interesting. This is often difficult to get right, but when done properly it really drives up levels of engagement. This is the next frontier but also a strong opportunity for us during the year.
7. What is, in your opinion, the single most important factor for any Government communication, including that of Romania, to be effective on social media?
I would say that it’s all about the content. Remember on social media that Government is competing for space on people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds with their friends and other high profile accounts. Our content needs to be interesting, reliable and of the highest quality.