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Published on December 18th, 2012 | by Simon Wakeman

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The future of public sector communications – 2013 and beyond

At the recent Public Sector Communications Awards in Manchester I delivered a presentation about the future of public sector communications in the coming years.

I’ve since had a few emails and Twitter messages asking to see the slides, but given they were a one word minimal affair, I thought instead I’d turn the presentation into an extended blog post.

As we reach the turn of the year it’s that time when we tend to reflect on the previous twelve months and look forward to what might be coming up. And earlier this month the Autumn Statement from the government confirmed what was pretty much expected – more austerity and more funding cuts.

I’ve headed up communications and marketing at Medway Council since late 2009 – shortly before a time of fundamental change in the sector following the general election in May 2010. It wasn’t long after then that unprecedented in-year spending cuts for local government heralded a new era for the sector – a new reality everyone in the public sector has had to adjust to.

The challenge for communicators has been to tell the story of reducing spending and major changes to services against the backdrop of massive change throughout the public sector – including fundamental restructuring in the NHS and central government.

In local government there has been an emerging understanding of a new reality driven by reducing budgets and growing demand for services.

The Barnet graph of doom has focussed attention on the fact that before long the sector won’t be able to afford to deliver its statutory services in adult and children’s social care, let alone any other statutory or discretionary services.

More recently Birmingham’s jaws of doom chart tells a similar story – demonstrating the ever-growing gap between resources available and funding pressures.

These charts sum up the situation really. Things have got to fundamentally change. We just can’t carry on without some big changes in the public sector. And that includes the communications profession.

In their Agile Council report PwC  talk about the evolution of organisations. Their three stages of development of organisations provide a useful framework for thinking about the role of communications in the public sector.

Their first stage of development is where organisations configure themselves around structures – basing the way the organisation works on the basis of line management structures and groups – something the public sector has traditionally been quite comfortable with.

In this world it’s easy to see where communications fits – as usually there will be a communications team or function which delineates clearly the place that communicators have in the organisation.

But in a time of cuts – salami slicing and beyond – a non-frontline team like communications will be vulnerable in this model – as they will struggle to articulate their value in an organisational model inherently places greater value on those teams that directly deliver service than those that form the so-called back office.

The next stage of development of organisations is when they start to configure themselves around processes – ensuring the resources they bring to bear to deliver service are configured around key customer-facing processes.

This focus on the value chain of activities is core to the business of shared service delivery and helps break down internal and external silos within the public sector. But in this model the function of communications tends to be marginalised – probably a tactical function supporting the delivery of customer processes but not fulfilling a more strategic purpose within the organisation.

But according to PwC the most advanced organisations are configuring themselves around outcomes – going beyond organisational boundaries and individual processes to deliver a clear focus on what they actually want or need to deliver to people.

And in this model the outcomes are delivered across sectors – so the most successful public sector organisations will be those that can work seamlessly with partners from the public, private and voluntary sectors to get stuff done.

That’s the future world in which public sector communications needs to find a role – being able to clearly define, articulate and prove its place in delivering outcomes that matter to the organisation and the people it serves.

Which takes us to performance management. It’s not something that many communicators naturally align themselves with, but without a strong performance management framework for communications we’re not going to be able to prove our value in delivering those outcomes that matter.

The most successful communicators of the future will be as comfortable with counting rules and data quality as they will with press releases and Twitter. Whatever we do, we must be able to prove its value – continuously.

As a profession we’ve got to do this and get beyond a sometimes lazy focus on outputs. Too often we measure how many press releases we’ve produced, how many leaflets we’ve sent out, how many people like us on Facebook or how many people visit our website. In an outcome focussed world these measures are meaningless. The sector doesn’t exist to send out releases or get people to websites – they’re simply part of a bigger journey towards improvement of one sort or another.

And while I’m on the subject of measurement and evaluation I have to say when judging the awards recently, while there were some really strong entries, it was disappointing to see advertising value equivalent (AVE) still popping up as an evaluation measure all too often. The PR industry has moved beyond this misleading practice. Public sector communicators need to make sure they’re familiar with the Barcelona Principles which set out a sensible approach to measuring the value of PR and a focus on outcomes.

So what are the skills a communicator needs to be able to play a valuable role in this future? Well I think there are six areas that we need to focus on.

Digital

It goes without saying that a communications practitioner needs to get the digital space. It’s a core skill and has been for some time now. But the really good communicators will understand how to use digital channels as part of an integrated mix of tools – and be able to select those tools critically based on evidence.

Customer-focussed

This one shouldn’t be a surprise either as a focus on internal and external customers has always been at the heart of communications and marketing – whether through the marketing process or in the business of internal communication.

But the best communicators will be able to understand customers and the role of communications as a cog in the gearbox of service delivery – integral to the effectiveness of the gearbox but unable to function without the other cogs in the gearbox as well.

Agile

Public sector communicators of the future need to demonstrate real agility in the way they work. The sector will be defined by its ability to change and communicators need to be able to roll with this – being responsive to the increasingly dynamic nature of their organisations and their environments. They need to be increasingly cross-skilled – allowing communications teams to flex according to needs and demonstrate greater cross-discipline resilience.

Change-ready

While everyone in the sector will have a view about the future and what it may bring, none of us have that magic crystal ball to be able to predict with great accuracy. But while it’s a real cliche, it’s true that we can be certain that change – rapid, sometimes unexpected and always challenging – will be a feature of the public sector future.

Communicators will often be at the forefront of this change and at times personally as well as professionally involved in it.

The best communicators will be comfortable with that rapid and sustained change. They’ll be able to separate their own emotions and natural responses to change from the professional challenge that change brings them as communicators – to ensure they can deliver high quality work even when the personal circumstances are difficult for them.

Habit challengers

I’m a big fan of the concept of dual process theory of reasoning. It helps explain how we approach our work and how we go about doing things. According to the theory we have two minds or systems.

The first is an automatic mind (or system 1) that tends to solve problems by relying on prior knowledge and belief. It has rapid, parallel and automatic ways of working where only the final product is conscious – so our mind automatically jumps to a conclusion, decision or action without realising the thought process we’ve taken to get there.

The automatic mind is a good thing as without it, we’d be forever cogitating on things and would never actually get stuff done.

But the habits it engenders can be limiting too – they’re a barrier to taking active choices in work situations and stop us questioning our behaviour, challenging our choices and giving genuine consideration to alternatives.

The second mind is reflective (or system 2). When we use this mind we undertake abstract hypothetical thinking and use reasoning combined with logic to reach a conclusion. The reflective mind is slow and very demanding of our mental energy but helps us take a broader and more considered view.

And in the business of communications there’s a place for both. Strong communicators will be aware of this and the limitations of both – making conscious choices in their approach and being cognescent of the underlying factors that influence the functioning of their automatic minds. They will be able to shift out of habits to use their skills, knowledge and experience to make the good decisions in every situation.

Network players

We live in a networked world. People have always been connected through personal relationships, but the digital age has expanded the reach, volume and strength of many of the links in these networks.

And that’s a game changer for public sector communications. Our former modus operandi in communications was communicating for or on behalf of our organisations.

In the future our role will be about communicating through others – using their role, place and trust within their unique networks to help tell our stories and play our part in delivering outcomes.

We live in an age where people rely on others they know for information, not the organisations or prominent people they used to get that information from.

So the best public sector communicators will be able to understand and see the networks that exist, will know their place and role in them, and most importantly enable others to function within the right networks to help the sector achieve its goals.

And it’s this shift that means public sector communicators have to be able to let go.

We have to drop the pretence that we can control communications. I’d argue we never could control as much as we (and probably others) thought we could, but now it’s clear – we can’t dictate timescales or messages as the networked people in communities will say what they think when they want. And what they think will be influenced most by other people in their network that the trust.

So to be successful we have to be able to let go of the concept of control and learn to participate. We can make a choice to operate in a new mode – participating, engaging, facilitating and enabling – and that’s a choice as professional communicators that we have to make.

It’s that choice that will allow us to differentiate ourselves from the amateur communicators in our organisations.

After all every organisation has its amateurs. Anyone can write a news article can’t they? And web design – if you’ve been on Dreamweaver course then job done.

Of course there’s always been a tension between the amateur communicators and the professionals. The professionals smart from the perceived incursion on their turf while the amateurs can’t see what the fuss is about. And the arrival of social media has given the amateurs another thing “they can do”.

So in this busy, networked world there’s a lot of noise; lots of channels to communicate through; lots of content – which all makes it harder to get our messages out there and heard by the people we need to hear them.

It’s easy for communicators to see the amateurs as a persistent threat – constantly challenging, nibbling away at the reputation of the professional communicators in an organisation and generally making a nuisance of themselves. But the best communicators will see this not as a threat but as an opportunity.

In the busy and confusing digitally networked world, anyone that can help people and organisations navigate this chaotic space will be invaluable as the public sector experiences unprecedented turbulence and sustained change.

And I’d argue it’s only the communicators that can do this well. The best communicators naturally understand relationship management, they can intuit the impact that good communications will have and they can adjust tactics to suit the context of delivery.

They’ll be able to use the psychology of motivation, the mechanisms of influence, the theories behind networks and the drivers of group or community participation to deliver the best work they can they help the public sector do its stuff.

It’s that unique blend that’ll mean the successful communicators of tomorrow stand head and shoulders above the amateurs in their organisations.

And that’s where the real future for public sector communications lies. We have the right skills to make communications an indispensable part of the public sector machinery in the future and make a really valuable contribution to society.

But it’s not going to happen by itself. No-one’s going to set it out for us. And it won’t be easy.

But it will be exciting – as public sector communicators continue to get a better understanding of the sector, how it’s changing and continue prove the value of communications in supporting the delivery of public sector outcomes for people in our communities.

So I have committed to myself that in 2013 I will continue to work hard on achieving this vision for public sector communications, continuing to learn and develop myself, and most importantly enjoying working in the turbulent and challenging place that is the public sector right now.

Image credit: Mr. Corso on Flickr

This article originally appeared on Simon Wakeman’s communications, marketing and public relations blog at www.simonwakeman.com.


About the Author

I write on my blog about all kinds of things. Mostly it's focussed on communications, marketing and digital stuff - as that's what I spend my days doing and evenings thinking about. But sometimes I'll cover running, mountain biking, road biking or geeky gadgets too.



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