John Shewell: COI review doesn't go far enough - we need 'social design'

The Government's Central Office of Information (COI) recently announced the findings of its review which calls for the creation of a Government Communications Centre.

John Shewell: 'Comms teams must evolve their roles to become social change agents'
John Shewell: 'Comms teams must evolve their roles to become social change agents'

This bold review effectively calls for the abolition of the COI and signals a new model of communications based on a shared services approach to communications.

While the motivation may be mostly financially driven, it does signal a positive shift towards a more collaborative approach to the design and delivery of communications.

However, the Government may have missed an opportunity (or possibly it is buried in the detail) to move to a co-production model for communications. This approach means radically moving away from ‘broadcasting’ to fully-fledged engagement.

Communicators need to explore this model of communications and reconfigure their operations to capitalise on the vast network of social goodwill that exists to build strong and credible campaigns.

Public service chiefs also need to reconsider the role of their comms teams and consider the possibility of making them obsolete in their current set up. As organisations and society shifts towards a more integrative and collaborative approach to problem-solving the role of communications must also evolve. 

It is no longer good enough for comms team to focus on the straight forward communications campaigns; but to think in both ‘vertical and horizontal’ behavioural change that lead to social innovation. 

Communications teams must evolve their roles to become social change agents and focus specifically around social design. 

And I don’t mean design in the sense of the graphic approach, but as in a systems thinking perspective to the issue by identifying the root causes and working both vertically and horizontally (depth and breadth) to address the issues.

There are only a handful of agencies doing this. Take ThinkPublic, one of the very few social design agencies that take a multi-disciplined approached to social issues in an effort to transform society by genuinely changing behaviour through positive design. 

The Government is attempting to pursue a strategy which encourages a ‘race to the top’ in which collective effort is focussed on driving up social, civic and economic prosperity as opposed to a ‘race to the bottom’ which is about the financial imperative alone. 

This is fundamentally about redesigning the way public services work; by co-designing and co-delivering solutions against outcomes we begin to create a race to the top.

Communications teams need to evolve to support this agenda. The current model of communications is obsolete and public service chiefs need to consider seriously what sort of comms teams they want for the future of their organisation. Comms heads need to start working out how a co-production model for communications fits this agenda. 

The Government’s recent review of the COI hints at a new model, but more work is needed if communications teams want to play an influential role for their organisations. 

Understanding how to develop social design through a systems thinking perspective is the first step in the journey towards a new model of communications for the public service.

John Shewell is head of comms at Brighton & Hove City Council

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