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The challenges and opportunities of a comprehensive government communications reform. Special interview with Sean Larkins, Deputy Director of Government Communications at the British Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office

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The United Kingdom is a pioneer in digital communication for public administration, for both its domestic audiences, and its external public, through digital diplomacy.

Since 2012, many significant changes have taken place, both in the structure of public administration, in terms of allocating resources for the process of communication, and in the way communication challenges are addressed, with the emergence of a strategic thinking and vision in government communication.

When referring to the efficiency of government communication, Mr Sean Larkins (@SeanLarkins1), Deputy Director of Government Communications at the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office, has led the team delivering comprehensive reforms in this field, and for creating the Government Communication Service.

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Photo: Sean Larkins

Hence, we were very happy that Mr Larkins agreed to share with us some insights into his activity and the reform of the communication process for the UK Government, in this exclusive interview.

 

  1. Mr Larkins, what were, in your opinion, the main changes regarding communication that the British Government underwent in the last three years?

We recognised that alongside legislation, regulation and taxation, communication is one of the four levers of government: when done well, its contribution to delivering government policies is profound.  We set out to ensure that UK government communications are:

  • Effective.  We carried out a capability review of all government communication teams; introduced mandatory evaluation for all communications programmes; and began to work more closely with external experts such as Google;
  • Efficient.  We produced the first cross-government communications plan; a core narrative for the government; and developed four major cross-government campaigns focusing on priority policy areas such as the economy and growth; and building a fairer society.  We reduced the number of government communicators and introduced a new focus on low-cost campaigns to ensure maximum value for the taxpayer;
  • Educated.  We introduced the Government Communication Service as the professional body for everyone working in government communications.  We introduced core competencies and a major professional development programme to ensure that we had the very best skills within government.  On behalf of individual Ministries, we took responsibility for recruiting entry-level staff into the profession in order to set higher standards for new recruits.  We introduced a talent programme for senior staff and a separate talent programme for junior staff who show exceptional potential.

All this was done as part of a formal change programme, which also saw the introduction, for the first time, of a corporate centre for UK government communications – much along the lines of how a multinational corporation would organise its communications activity.  The corporate centre helps co-ordinate activity across Ministries and ensures greater sharing of insight, skills and knowledge.

 

  1. Was the communications reform only for the central administration or was it a top-down reform with impact for the local administrations as well?

Reform of government communications has been led from the centre but supported and delivered by all Ministries and a large number of government agencies.  We wanted to set the benchmark for world-class public communications so also began to work much more closely with local authorities/municipalities, with the health service and with the emergency services so we could learn from and share best practice with each other.  We also looked to the private sector to see what we could learn from organisations like Google, agencies groups like WPP and private sector organisations from a range of sectors including financial services, transport and hospitality.

 

  1. What determined the British Government to make these changes?

When a new government was elected in 2010, Ministers asked us three questions: how many people work in government communications?  How much does it cost?  And is it any good?  Because of the ‘federal’ structure of government, we could not answer these questions.  Individual Ministries ran their own campaigns and there was no overall spending control.  There was no definition of what ‘communications’ meant: it was hard to identify who worked in communications so no-one counted.  And only a minority of government communication programmes were evaluated so we could not demonstrate whether what we did actually helped deliver government policies.

 

  1. The first ever annual plan for proactive government communication was developed in 2012. How do you see the evolution of the Government Communication Plan, now at its third edition? And what were the main challenges and benefits of developing such a plan?

The first annual plan really just identified and pulled together all the planned communications programmes across government (there were over 300 individual programmes of work).  It also identified the areas where Ministries should work closer together (for example, four Ministries shared responsibility for reducing carbon emissions but were not working close enough together).

The second annual plan worked to identify cross-government priorities and ensure that government communications were better co-ordinated and targeted.  The third plan was much more of a strategy than a plan – setting collective priorities and goals, for example, and introducing a new, single campaign planning framework for government.  It also showcased some examples of really great work.

Pulling together the work of around 20 Ministries and more than 200 government agencies is difficult without a clear sense from the centre of government about what its priorities are and what it needs to deliver.  So we worked closely with the Prime Minister’s office and senior Ministers to set a clear direction and narrative for government – so that everyone working in government communications – regardless of Ministry – could see the contribution they were making to deliver the government’s goals.  A clear sense of priorities meant we were also able to reduce the amount of communication that government produced – investing more on big cross-government campaigns and less on small programmes that were unlikely to be effective.

 

  1. How important is the digital medium for the UK Government communication and how do you balance between the traditional and new media for sending information to your audiences and engaging with them?

We operate a ‘digital-by-default’ policy.  This means that we look first at how best policies, services and communications can be delivered online.  We focus on the needs and abilities of the audience and look at which channels and which messengers are best placed or most trusted.  We work equally with bloggers and journalists from traditional media.  We create dialogue with audiences through Twitter and Facebook for example.

However, we are very aware that some communities and audiences are not online.  Which is why we also work to inform the public through partners and stakeholders and through the media.

Nevertheless, we have moved away from paid-for media such as advertising and more towards owned media – such as our own online channels and government staff – and influenced media such as editorial and content.

 

  1. What are your three most successful/ innovative projects, and what do you believe will be the main opportunities and challenges for the British Government communication team this year?

Firstly, our focus on behaviour change.  Most government communication asks people to stop doing something (like smoking), start doing something (like eating a healthier diet) or continue to do something (like paying their taxes on line).  We’ve moved away from the age of the press officer who only talks to journalists, to an age where government communicators need to understand areas such as psychology, ethnography, economics and public policy development.

Secondly, some of our health campaigns have been enormously successful.  Evaluation of our campaign on stroke prevention for example, showed that for every £1 spent on communications saved the National Health Service nearly £15: we have successfully shown that when done well communication is an investment and not an expenditure.

Thirdly, we are very proud of the GREAT Britain campaign, which is the UK’s most ambitious international marketing campaign ever.  The campaign has delivered a direct return to the UK economy of over £1 billion since it was launched in 2012 and is now active in 144 countries.  The campaign unites all UK government overseas activity and involves 17 Ministries and over 300 British companies and high-profile individuals such as athletes, musicians, actors and entrepreneurs.

 

The year ahead will be a busy and challenging one.  There is a general election in 2015 and we need to demonstrate to the next government that UK government communications really are world class and deliver value for money in a time of austerity.  After the 2014 independence referendum, we need to re-engage with a wide range of audiences in Scotland.  We need to continue to deliver exceptional crisis communications on global issues such as Ebola. And we need to continue to focus on how behavioural-based communications can be more effective than legislation, regulation and taxation.

 

  1. Can the UK be a model for reform in government communication for other countries, such as Romania? If yes, what would your advice be for effective change?

Absolutely!  My advice for effective change would be to start with a clear vision of what you want to achieve:  reform can generate respect for communications – but it also generates fear.

Put the public at the heart of your thinking and challenge yourself to make big changes.  We found that strong programme management was essential: that may sound bureaucratic, but without holding people accountable, old (bad) habits die hard.  The shift from big-budget advertising to low-cost PR is difficult without strong evaluation that demonstrates that communications is really delivering policy objectives.

We agreed at the start that we would be successful when:

  • All major communication activity had a defined strategy
  • Insight, research and evidence informed all campaigns
  • Government departments and agencies worked better together
  • Each campaign had clear milestones and used multiple media channels
  • We knew what the story was and how to make it relevant for citizens
  • We evaluated our work and understood the change in awareness, understanding and behaviour we needed to achieve
  • We had the confidence of our political leaders.

Are we there yet?  No – real change takes time.  But we’re certainly on the way!

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I believe you will all agree with me when I say that the communication of the British Government should, indeed, be a model for a comprehensive reform of the Romanian public administration communication process. And Mr Larkins has provided several important elements for an effective approach.

 

Published by

Andra Alexandru

Specialist în Comunicare și Relații Internaționale, cu experiență profesională în diplomație publică și comunicare instituțională.

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