Meeting the public sector communications challenge

SimonCommunications, General

Increasingly I get the sense that communicators working across the public sector are feeling like a threatened group. While of course communicators aren’t and shouldn’t be immune to the impact of reducing public sector spending, I sense something broader causing unease in the profession.

I’ve believed for some years now that significant penetration of high speed internet access and the advent of the social web is changing the dynamics of communicating. That’s a trend that’s well established and to which public sector communicators cannot be blind.

That alone is a paradigm shift in how public sector communications should be planned and delivered. But the operating environment for communicators is also shifting rapidly in other ways.

At a tactical level the media and public mood is increasingly critical of public sector messages. Without careful planning, it’s hard to avoid messages being caught up in a media filter where the focus falls on how much is being spent and a subjective judgement on whether this constitutes good value for money.

Since the election earlier this year, the national political context has changed significantly too. Yes, there’s a focus on reducing spending and the looming CSR announcement on 20 October, but as well as that communicators and the organisations they work for are still trying to understand how they fit into the new model of the public sector and the concept of the Big Society.

Add into that the need to be alert to and respond to announcements from central government that hint at possible future policy directions and all considered the public sector communications environment is radically different from this time last year.

And all considered that’s what presents the challenge to communicators. The real discussion now should be about how the profession responds to the challenge.

It’s not enough to look back at examples of where public sector communications has made a contribution to the work of public sector organisations in the past. While this is valid and does help, we’ve got to acknowledge that this isn’t enough.

We need to look forward and be part of the change in the public sector. Communicators need to understand the trajectory of the sector, and establish themselves as part of the delivery of the future direction of the sector.

We mustn’t look back at the pre-2010 era as a golden age of public sector communications which has since passed with the removal of significant expenditure from the sector.

It’s inevitable that reduced funding will change the nature of public sector communications and many traditional high cost communications activities will have to cease unless they can genuinely demonstrate robust return on investment.

But what public sector communicators need to do is continue to demonstrate the value of communications, not as an end in itself, but as an agent for making things better for the public. Where appropriate and wherever possible we should focus on making sure communications activities are inseparable from service delivery – an integral part of what’s needed to deliver service to the public, rather than a high cost low return add-on.

However that’s not enough. Communicators need to research and understand the government’s thinking on the big society agenda. This “turning upside down” of the way that many parts of the public sector will work means communicators need to think about how they can act more as community enablers and facilitators.

Rather than seeing audience segments as groups “out there” with which we have to communicate and engage, it’s easy to see future communicators playing an important enabling role in helping communities help themselves – through facilitating communications and brokering communications skills within those communities.

That’s not to say that aspects of what public sector communicators now do won’t continue in the future. Of course they will. But the pace and scope of change now is both a challenge and an opportunity for the profession.

My hope is that this doesn’t lead to a bunker mentality among commicators – we have to learn, engage and participate actively in the future direction of public service. Without this I fear the perception of communications in the public sector as primarily an expensive “nice-to-have” could increasingly take hold. If that happens much of the genuine value and benefit that communications gives in public service will be lost.