future govcomms: training, trust and re-training ministers

Alex Aiken, the UK Government's most senior comms practitioner, through The Guardian asked what the future of government comms should look like. Here's one view.

by Dan Slee

So, what should the future of government communications look like? If you think it's tweeting press releases wearing a One Direction t-shirt you're wrong.

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, you really should take a look at the link 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 generalists but digital specialists who will horizon scan and share the knowledge.

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.

Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0. He also blogs here.

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