Thursday, April 25, 2024
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HomeOpinionCommentaryDelivering for the government and the public

Delivering for the government and the public

 – Those who work with me will know how much I value the importance of collaboration to drive innovation and improvement. So I am grateful to Gillian and colleagues from the OECD – Karine, Alessandro, and Carlotta – for conducting such a comprehensive scan of the UK government’s communication function, and for providing their recommendations for how we can build on the progress we have already made. I will use the next 25 minutes or so to provide my reflections in response to the scan’s key findings and recommendations, whilst also reflecting on the progress GCS has made over the past couple of years. We should then have some time for questions.

By Simon Baugh

Firstly, OECD’s scan found that many of our teams are leading innovation and excellence within the field of government communications, but that there is an opportunity to elevate all departments to the same standards of our best-performing teams.

It is great that the OECD recognises the high performance across UK government communications that I see every day. I have recently completed a series of visits to each departmental communications team and the level of dedication and expertise I saw, as well as the variety of ways in which we are seeking to innovate, makes me proud to lead GCS.

As the Scan acknowledges, our 2022 to 2025 strategy ‘Performance with Purpose’ set a vision for a more collaborative, innovative and highly-skilled profession. And it is down to the excellent work of my team and the wider profession that we have completed over 75 percent of the strategy’s commitments.

But the OECD is right to note that we have further to go to support all teams within GCS to operate at their very best. I want to briefly touch upon a few of the actions we are taking to build on the progress already made.

We are building on the recent release of the updated GCS policies and standards known as the Modern Communications Operating Model by developing a new self-assessment tool that will help all communications teams, regardless of their size and context, assess their current performance and identify areas of strength and opportunities for further development. This tool will be released in March, and will look to join up different teams across government to support one another through peer review.

On upskilling, GCS Advance is a substantial new learning and development programme that will deliver a measurable step change in the skills of UK government communicators. It will operate at apprentice, practitioner, expert and leader levels with a focus on digital and data skills, mandatory modules on AI at every level and training in agile management techniques at expert and leader levels. The practitioner-level pilot is almost complete and will roll out from April, and the Expert level programme was fully subscribed in less than two weeks during January. The ambition is for 2,500 GCS members to be part of a GCS Advance programme by March of next year.

On innovation, colleagues in GCS will know that this is an area about which I am deeply passionate. Over the last two years, GCS has focussed on harnessing new communications technology to drive better outcomes and improving digital and data skills.

This included establishing a new GCS Innovation Hub, which identifies the best ideas from the external market, by bringing together agency partners and technology companies to develop a pipeline of the most promising new technology. It invites UK tech start-ups to pitch their idea for how to improve government comms. Pilots include working with Audiomob, which enables us to target key audiences with in-game audio ads. It’s great to see departments, including DLUHC and DHSC, already taking advantage of this new technology.

GCS has also helped to pioneer the use of AI in government. AI tools can help communicators to get the right message, to the right audience at the right time; develop more two-way, personalised and inclusive communication; and act as a co-pilot to transform productivity and effectiveness.

For example, GCS members at The Royal Navy launched its first AI-driven virtual recruiter. It provides potential recruits with personalised conversations and has reduced recruitment call centre inquiries by 40 percent. Potential recruits are also asking different questions – questions they might not have asked a person – such as “What’s it like to be a muslim in the Royal Navy?”.

The central GCS team has developed its own large language model in-house which is currently being tested in a pilot. It takes OpenAI’s ChatGPT foundational model and overlays GCS data, standards, and guardrails. The aim is to give government communicators access to a virtual government comms assistant. Being trained on GCS data means that it provides answers using best practice GCS standards – ask it for evaluation measures and it will use the GCS evaluation framework, ask it for a communications plan and it will use the OASIS method (Objectives, Audience, Strategy, Implementation, Scoring).

The ambition is to build more GCS data and insight into the model. For example by training it on focus group and polling data to predict how different groups might react to a specific government announcement, or training it on historic media queries to predict media questions and suggest answers. This new technology could allow communications professionals to complete tasks in minutes that take hours today.

The GCS focus on innovation has already moved it from a function that was seen as lagging behind the private sector, to one which is increasingly recognised as world-leading in its use of new technology. I am committed to continuing this progress.

As Gillian notes, the OECD scan recommends that an area of potential further development for UK government communications is to improve our ability to listen to citizens’ preferences and concerns at scale, in order to build a stronger feedback loop between government and the public, which in turn could build greater trust in government.

OECD are right to draw attention to this area. The 2022 ONS Trust in Government Survey reported that one-third (35%) of the UK population say they trust their national government, lower than the average across the OECD countries (41%). Half (49%) of the UK population said they did not trust the national government. Public confidence and trust in government communications is critical to the government’s ability to implement policies that support national security and wellbeing. For example, higher trust in government was associated with higher adoption of health behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic.

And the UK also scored lower than comparator countries on issues of responsiveness and integrity. Fewer than one-third (30%) of the UK population thought it was likely that a national policy would be changed if the majority of people expressed a view against it. Half (51%) of the UK population thought a change was unlikely, compared with an OECD average of 40 percent.

OECD research shows that trust in government is strongly associated with people feeling that they have a say in what government does. Rebuilding trust is about more than government delivering on what it says it will do. It is also about how it governs.

As we know, new technology is enabling governments to gain an increasingly advanced understanding of citizens’ needs, their concerns with public services, policy preferences, and attitudes towards key public issues. Today these tools are largely used for monitoring audience sentiment and to target communications to specific audiences – to broadcast rather than listen. But, the same technology could be harnessed responsibly to feed into the policy agenda and the design of services, and to engage in more two-way dialogue.

GCS has an important role to play in considering how organisational listening could be used more across government to enhance how open and participative UK government is, including by considering international examples of participative and deliberative processes such as citizens juries or assemblies. It is interesting that the Republic of Ireland, which has been at the forefront of these innovations, is close to the top of the OECD rankings for public trust in government.

New technology could support more engagement with the public in the early stages of policy development. Government consultations could be made more accessible. AI could quickly summarise long consultation documents; translate policy and receive responses in any language; summarise the main suggestions and points of concern for policymakers; and give citizens a tailored response explaining how their views were taken into account when developing policy.

Serving the public also means meeting the needs of all citizens, which entails making content informative, relevant and understandable to all. One of the biggest differences between doing communication in the public and private sector is that we don’t get to choose our customer base. We are here to serve everyone. Communicating effectively with groups who feel excluded from the political mainstream by ensuring their needs are met with relevant and resonant information could counteract perceptions that they are left behind or disenfranchised.

There are clear(ly) decisions for ministers to make about how best to proceed here, but I am grateful to the OECD for identifying this area of potential development, which we will consider further.

As noted by the scan, I am pleased with the progress made by GCS to increase our measurement and evaluation of communications activity. Since I joined government I have seen significant improvements in how our communications campaigns are measured and evaluated, and how the findings support further refinement and development.

But we are keen to go further here. To ensure that GCS continues to drive forward best practice in evaluation, I am pleased to announce that we have now released GCS’ new evaluation cycle, which will supersede the Evaluation Framework 2.0. The Evaluation Cycle encourages continuous learning improvements, so that we can leverage the latest digital innovations and better deliver our comms and government objectives. While familiar terminologies and metrics remain, the “Evaluation Cycle” more closely reflects the cyclical nature of evaluation – a continuous process of planning, implementation, measurement, and learning.

I look forward to seeing further insights from the OECD on this area, as I know they are beginning a specific piece of work on the evaluation of communications activity with France.

And, as the OECD implies, government is still too siloed – both between and within departments, and between and within professions.

The scan notes improvements but suggests that there is potential for increased and earlier collaboration between policy and communications. I have certainly seen improvements in this area. However, communications teams are still too often thought of as the ‘press office’ – there to provide presentational gloss once a policy has been developed. There is almost no mention of GCS in the media that doesn’t involve an eyebrow-raising reference to the government’s “7,000 spin doctors”.

Instead, communications should be seen as a critical lever for government. It should be thought of alongside legislation, regulation, taxation and spending as a tool that ministers can use to achieve policy goals.

There are three roles for modern government communications: informing the public about the actions of the government; supporting better policy or service design through public engagement and insight; and changing behaviour for the public good or supporting operational delivery through campaigns.

As the scan asserts, communications can bring valuable audience insight on the underlying public concerns or sentiments that policy needs to address. And ministers and policymakers can get a sense of what the reaction to a policy is likely to be among different groups – a piece of information that should be crucial to whether they proceed.

Communications can also use behaviour change campaigns to help achieve ministers’ desired outcomes and support the implementation of policy. This can support a wide range of outcomes from changing abusive behaviour towards women and girls to supporting the efficient operation of the NHS. Effective public service campaigns often have a secondary benefit of building public support and awareness for the policy itself. For example, the Home Office’s campaign to recruit 20,000 police officers built awareness of the policy to expand police numbers.

I, therefore, agree with the scan’s recommendation that the way to unlock the benefits that the full range of communications activity brings across government is through stronger links between the different professions within departments. Although we have further to go here, the improvements I have seen in insight and evaluation across the government communications profession since beginning this role, and the impact that this has had on supporting ministers to make more informed decisions both on policy and communications, make me hopeful that we are on the right track.

The scan warns that the UK is not immune to the trend towards politicisation that the OECD has also observed in other countries. It also reminds us that the trustworthiness of public communications is essential, particularly in order to support the countering of disinformation and give the public confidence that government communications and its underpinning technologies, such as ad targeting and behavioural insights, are being used responsibly and in the public interest.

The core values and behaviours required of all civil servants – integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality – are of enduring relevance and value. I expect the civil servants who are part of GCS to abide by the highest ethical standards.

I want to spend a moment on what we mean by impartiality as it is sometimes misinterpreted. It does not mean we are neutral. Impartiality means we set aside our personal views and serve governments of different political parties equally well. The government has the right to expect GCS members to further its policies and objectives, regardless of how politically divisive they might be.

Communicators and other public resources are provided to help ministers explain the government’s policies in a positive light.

At the same time, any statement that comes from official government channels must be justified by the facts. It should be objective and explanatory, and not biased or polemical. Citizens should be able to trust what they read from official government channels. They should be confident that we have made as positive a case as the facts warrant – no more and no less. Furthermore, government communicators cannot be used for image-making, or building ministers’ personal brands, which is the province of the party political machine.

GCS members should feel confident in being able to push back if they are asked to do something in contravention of the Civil Service Code or the GCS Propriety Guidance. My advice to GCS members who ask “Where is the line?” is to refer to the guidance and ask yourself the following questions about what you are being asked to do:

  1. Is it about explaining government policy and not about party politics, personal image-building, or attacking the views of others?
  2. Is it factually accurate and presented honestly?
  3. Does any expenditure represent value for money for taxpayers by delivering an outcome which is a public good in the most economic way?

If the answer to all three questions is “Yes” then it is likely you’re the right side of the line.

To ensure everyone in GCS has a strong understanding of the rules around propriety and ethics we have developed a new, mandatory online course for GCS members on Propriety & Ethics. The course was launched in November – and more than half of GCS members from ministerial departments have completed the training so far.

Building resistance against mis and disinformation is also a key area of focus, particularly given that there have been recent examples from other elections where instances of mis and disinformation have caused confusion. Although this is an area where we have made progress, most notably through the use of the RESIST 2 Counter Disinformation Toolkit, it is vital that we work to prepare for, and if needed respond to, instances of mis and disinformation in the run-up to or during the next election.

Finally, throughout this speech, I have spoken about the benefits that innovation and greater use of new technology can bring. But, as OECD recommends, it is vital we give the public confidence that these technologies are being used responsibly and in the public interest. We are placing our ethical values at the heart of our approach to innovation, which will be outlined through our upcoming Data and Innovation Strategy.

As part of the strategy, we are developing an Ethical Decision Making Framework for Responsible Innovation, which will enable all government communicators to apply these principles when considering the use of new technology.

Thanks again to the OECD for their detailed work and insightful reflections. As I have outlined, there are lots to agree with as well as points for us to consider further.

My priority over the coming year is to continue the excellent progress we have made as a profession over recent years, and to continue delivering for the government and the public. As part of that, I look forward to continuing this insightful and worthwhile collaboration with the OECD.

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