There was an event the other day in Whitehall which looked at this very topic which I would have loved to have got to. But I work in the West Midlands so that wasn’t going to happen.
It’s a good question and one that I’d given a lot of thought to just recently. Not just because the LGComms Future Leaders course I’d been involved with was asked just this question and asked to come up with a presentation.
One of the good things about being in the public sector is the ability to share ideas and approaches. This doesn’t happen in the private sector. As one person recently put it, they’ll tell you what they did but they’ll just leave out a vital piece of information so you can’t follow. It’s like handing over a car without the spark plugs.
So here are some things that should happen.
6 things to bring local and central government comms people together
1. Realise that each side isn’t the enemy. You’d be forgiven for thinking sometimes reading the Daily Mail that local government was to blame for the banking crisis, Northern Rock and the nationalisation of the banks. Just think what would have happened had local government mis-sold products. Step aside from the headlines and realise that there is more to bring civil Service and local government comms people together. We both face the question ‘what does communications mean in 2014?’ for example.
2. Paid secondments both ways. A few years ago a secondment from local government into the civil service could have been do-able. Not now. There isn’t the spare capacity anymore in local government. But funded posts could help backfill and share the knowledge. Even better if they are French-exchange-style two way affairs. Better still if they involve co-operation on the same project.
3. Open up central government training to local government. The Goverment Communications Service (formerly the Government Communications Network) stages a range of good training opportunities. It would be great if this was open to local government too.
4. Open up local government seminars to central government. Places like LGComms put on some excellent sessions. The different perspective of a Whitehall comms person would be useful. Just as the comms person more used to dealing with the community would be a benefit to a central government person.
5. Encourage events like commscamp. In February last year more than 130 comms people from Whitehall and local government came together in a joint event for what must have been the first time. There were more than 400 on the waitlist when it was turned off. The agenda was decided on the day by those who went. Anarchy? Not really. It worked beautifully. It was organised by people in central and local government in their own time. (Disclaimer: I’m biased as I helped co-organise commscamp.)
6. Realise that neither side is better. They’re just different. As government departments put more focus on stakeholder groups local government listens to residents more. At a time when the Foreign Office is putting more effort – rightly – into answering queries on Twitter there’s pr people in Staffordshire or Norfolk who could tell them a few things. They are two different skills. It made me realise that neither side is better. We’re just different.
7. We both work in the public sector and should be proud of that. Sure, the private sector does some good things. But we delivered the Olympics, we save lives, we keep the roads running, our children educated and a whole load of other things too. How much better is that than flogging toothpaste?
EDIT: GCS courses are also now available to local government people. That’s welcome.
Creative commons credit.
Refreshingly, the UK government has stood up and on The Guardian website admitted it had a good idea. But not a definitive one.
The newspaper asks readers what it would tell Alex Aiken the government’s executive director of government communications. Which is either a blast of refreshing openness or a bit of window dressing. Actually, let’s take them at face value. Because no-one really has the last word. And Alex used to be localgov as I am now.
A changing landscape
If you are interested in communications, have a look at the new draft communications plan here.
Not only that but whole swathes of the government-wide communications plan should be printed out and shared vigorously. Not least the paragraph:
“We are operating against a fast changing backdrop.
“Digital TV and broadband access at home are now the norm.
“45 per cent of viewing is now of non-terrestrial channels, three times more than ITV1.
“Half of homes now have some form of personal video recorder such as Sky Plus.
“Newspaper sales continue to decline but the growth of online versions means that some content – often entertainment related-news stories – can reach more people than ever before.
“Social media channels are playing an ever greater role in spreading news and opinion.”
That they see that the landscape is changing is a profound relief to me. The facts loom so large as to be undeliable and people are starting slowly to grasp this. Whether we are all moving as fast as we could to embrace change is something else.
“In simple terms government should continue to shift from a static or traditional view of channels and audiences to one that reflects people’s lives, preferences and influences.”
It also talks about the three things that government comms needs to do. The legal obligation to tell people about big planning matters, for example. Or the explaining Minister’s priorities. And the attempt to change behaviours.
For local government too…
It’s tempting to think that local government can do this too. At a stroke. As a sector. But that would be silly. And it also forgets that people in Devon know more about what channels Devon people use than people who live in Dudley. But it’s absolutely the path that local government comms needs to go down.
It also means that comms people need to acknowledge they may not have all the answers to comms any more. Will that undermine the profession? Not, really. A bit of refreshing honesty is vital. Besides, I’ve learned so much about digital comms from bloggers, engineers and environmental health officers.
The 37 skills a comms person will need
Last summer I wrote a post that talks about the 37 skills we’ll need. I was a bit wrong. We won’t all need those. But you can bet your bottom dollar that teams will and the more you’ll have the better it’ll be for you.
The list includes traditional, digital, community building, mapping, infographics, social media, story telling, political nous and lots more beside.
We’ll need better training. We’ll need better ways to share good ideas. We’ll need more things like commscamp where local and central government people came together to do just that (disclaimer: I helped organise that.)
But more important than that, much more we’ll need the space to experiment and try new things. That’ll come from the top. It’ll come from Ministers themselves and senior officers. Or rather, it’ll come from our ability to re-train the Minister that something on Twitter is more important than the Today programme’s running order. Or in local government terms, that’s the local newspaper.
When I was a journalist we had an amazing media law refresher. We returned to the chalk face keen to push the boundaries. We were slapped down by our news editors. Training is wasted unless the people at the top get it too.
Salvation will come from an ongoing bombardment of stats, facts, figures, reporting back and internal communications. We think training is the answer. It’s not. It’s the start. Space to fail and learn from failing is.
But we also need to think about trust. More specifically, the Edelman Trust Barmeter that talks of how trust in institutions is up. But trust in those at the top is low but trust in those at the bottom is high. In other words, we don’t believe the chief executive of Royal Mail. But we trust our postman.
We need to be able to deliver comms outside of comms and give the people on the frontline the tools to communicate like West Midlands Police do and like we do in growing parts of local government too. At this point I link to Morgan Bowers a countryside ranger at Walsall Council with 1,100 followers on Twitter who are receptive to explanations about why saplings have to be cut down.
It’ll also mean hiring bloggers for their skills. Not just journalists.
So much is made in the Government document about savings. I’d like to hear more about results and what exciting possibilities we have stretching out in front of us too, please.