Effective, slick and joined-up working across the public sector. Of course it makes sense, but the reality of pulling it off well can be harder than it looks. Here’s a rallying cry for getting better and smarter at it.
by Nicola Bonas
It seems unbelievable to me that in an age where we can help paralysed people walk again with the use of robotics, we still cannot create one single approach to communications across the public sector. How is this still the poisoned chalice?
Surely we are not talking about Utopia here? Almost eight years ago I sat in an old council building in Exeter with professional communicators from the NHS, local authority, police, education, ambulance service and third sector - looking at how we achieved one targeted approach to tackling alcoholism across Devon. Some of the best ideas and laid plans I have ever seen came out of that group, did it ever happen? No, did it hell.
Why? Ownership, responsibility, budgets and blurred lines - the biggest frustrations for me as a professional communicator.
Shouldn't we all be aiming for one goal and agreeing priorities that we all work towards? Should barriers limit our aspirations, ambitions and talents? For me what this would look like is us identifying the local skills and talents from across our local public sector family. Then when we devise our yearly priorities we pull from this skill set and work towards one agreed approach, rather than multiple plans, duplication and financial wastage, we need to be smarter and braver about how we do things.
We should invest in those talent pools, making them the very best at what they do. This could also lead to commercial opportunities as well. We certainly need to invest in raising the skills of those we call professional communicators so that the standard we set in the public sector is high.
In Plymouth I would love us to achieve one approach to public health communications across the city. At present I think you would find three or four plans generated every year by various organisations. You can guarantee that we are all chasing the same targets, the same behaviour changes and the same outcomes. Is this not just madness? We have one health system locally that communications should wrap itself around. It's not impossible and it's certainly got to happen as the public purse continues to tighten.
As professional communicators we have to be offering up the best solutions to get the greatest impact out of any financial commitments we make. What it will take I believe is improved local relationships, new levels of trust, investment in local talent and plenty of energy. This may be a radical suggestion to some but imagine what one communications team, working across all public sector organisations locally would look like? Imagine that in your area and consider the possibilities.
I have dipped my toe in that water having spent the last year seconded from the NHS to Plymouth City Council. My objective was to bring together communications for the integration of health and social care across the city. Having one health and social care system with one budget has certainly helped but it's not for the faint hearted. It's hard work and will push you to your professional limits, but the outcomes are worth all the pain. It gives you the chance to use all of your skills and enables you to show the value professional communicators add to policy, strategy, commissioning and transformation.
For me I see integrated communications as the fundamental approach for the public sector in the future. For me this is smarter communications and we should be investing in people who want to achieve this.
If you’ve cracked this in other parts of the UK I’d love to hear about it. Maybe you could write a follow-up post for comms2point0? And if you’re in and around the Devon area and want to talk about how we tackle and progress this please get in touch either via Twitter or via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicola Bonas is Transformation Communications Lead at Plymouth City Council
Image via Flickr creative commons