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  • Digital by default: major changes in government communications...

    Digital by default: major changes in government communications...

    Shortly after I blogged about comments by Alex Aiken, the UK Government’s Executive Director of Communications, regarding the changes he is spearheading in communications within government departments, the Cabinet Office published the outcome of a ‘Digital Communications Capability Review’ that Aiken instigated.

    The Chartered Institute of PR welcomed the review, noting that it “sets out a bold ambition and plan that seeks to normalise digital communication by the end of 2014”.

    Blogging on the CIPR website, Steve Waddington MCIPR and CIPR Council member said that it “contains lessons for both the public and private sector. It’s a manifesto for change that sets out a framework for modernising and upgrading communication across government in the UK.”

    Our own Northern Ireland Executive Information Service (EIS) has supposedly been the subject of a root-and-branch review begun last year, as Noel McAdam reported this week in the Belfast Telegraph. So I wonder if there is anything the EIS can learn from the Cabinet Office report.

    Main findings
    The main finding was that whilst digital communication was “developing well” in specialist teams, it has not been developing in mainstream areas – i.e. the rump of government communications.

    The report found that “too much is broadcast” – i.e. one-way – and does not seek to engage.

    It also found that digital communication is treated by many departments as an area where the risks outweigh the benefits.

    Transmit mode rather than conversations
    On the point of one-way communication, the reviewers report that much is still delivered in transmit mode “following the top-down, broadcasting of messages rather than conducting conversations that modern communications involves”.

    They note that only rarely is digital a truly integral part of service delivery or policy development and playing “a strategic role in driving efficiency, quality or collaboration with external stakeholders.”

    Focus on outputs rather than outcomes
    They say that objective-setting focuses too much on ‘output’ metrics such as follower numbers, likes, retweets, and not on outcomes, i.e. changing perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. This leads to a box-ticking approach to digital tools, “sometimes with an apparent desire to impress managers, rather than achieve worthwhile outcomes”.

    Digital seen as preserve of specialists
    The report’s findings with regard to structures are interesting, and something that many large organisations in the private sector could perhaps identify with.

    It is noted that there is no clear leadership in developing digital communications and engagement; that the Government’s Digital Service is perceived as operating at a remove from the department communications functions; that digital communication is seen as the preserve of specialists; and that there is evidence of duplication between what web teams are doing and media teams are doing.

    As a result of the review, principles were produced to help guide the development of the recommendations and a manifesto for change was created from these.

    Digital essential for modern communicators
    Amongst other things, the manifesto notes that “digital communication and engagement is an essential part of the modern communicator’s repertoire… Government communications must change to embrace digital more widely to meet rising expectations and to deliver greater efficiencies”.

    Digital should be mainstream
    In short, the recommendations were that objective-setting and evaluation should be improved, and digital communication should be made mainstream (rather than just carried out by specialist teams).

    “Digital forms of communication and engagement should be a core skill not a specialism.”

    Digital by default
    In a letter posted on the Cabinet Office website Aiken has committed to accept and implement the vast majority of the recommendations “to make government communications digital by default”.

    He adds that the review “marks the end of the ‘press notice by default’ style of communications and will herald a new approach based on measured digital campaign communications”.