Evaluation will help drive up standards in public sector comms

The Whitehall comms review should result in performance improvements throughout government.

Alex Aiken: Executive director of government communications
Alex Aiken: Executive director of government communications

The skills needed to be a government communicator are changing. Rapidly.

During the past year, comms reviews have tested the capability of government departments.

The reviews have been led by some major figures in PR, marketing and digital, and they have identified some brilliant work, but also areas where we need to improve.

Across Whitehall we are building on the findings from these reviews. A new approach to campaigns is delivering better activities and saving money, and departments are getting better at sharing resources.

But we are determined to crack three thorny issues: the effectiveness of internal comms, the quality of evaluation, and the level of digital competence that underpins great public comms.

Internal comms is more important than ever as we move from an age of deference to one of reference. Staff need to be convinced of the merits of an argument through proof, clear comms and leadership. We want to identify the best internal comms practice and make this standard.

Russell Grossman, our director of comms at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, is leading a cross-government working group to drive up standards, using the Engage for Success project as a foundation. We will unveil the new approach in January.

The Government spent £1bn on comms in 2010 and £500m this year. Is our comms now half as good or twice as efficient? No one knows because, until this spring, evaluation was seen as optional.

Evaluation has now become a core competency for all government communicators and it will become impossible to progress unless you can demonstrate the worth of your work.

We have established an Evaluation Council, drawn from the best of the private and public sectors, to assess, challenge and make recommendations on campaigns and improve our training, and we have put nearly 300 people through training and assessed 20 main government agencies.

During the next year, we will make sure all main government departments and agencies have an Evaluation Hub that demonstrates how policy, comms and customer service impact on each other, and allows comms managers to act on the data.

Digital comms is our next challenge. For example, during the first week of the badger cull, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tweeted 350 times but issued just one press release.

The press release is effectively dead, and communicators need to think about information as packages of video, infographics, quotes and blogs that can be broadcast, tweeted, mashed and debated. It's now about usable content, as well as lines to take.

As we have developed our approach to exceptional government communication, we were able to call on some great creative and analytical minds from the comms industry to support us.

This is emblematic of the sort of partnerships that can make government better and help keep UK PR world class. It's now up to us to deliver.

Alex Aiken is executive director of government communications

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