Public sector comms pros must create a 'culture of listening'

Comms can help Whitehall meet the challenge of the Brexit era by improving the Government's ability to listen to its disgruntled citizens.

Change is the law of life but the last two years have been exceptional, writes Sam Lister
Change is the law of life but the last two years have been exceptional, writes Sam Lister

Change is the law of life, so the adage goes. It is often credited to John F Kennedy, and someone working at the heart of government would know. But even the most inured observer of UK politics will have done a double-take at how the law has played out over the past two years: a general election; a shift from a coalition to a single party of Government in Westminster; the sudden resignation of a prime minister and the sudden selection of another; and two national referendums (the first backing a union, the second seismically against it).

The challenge that comes with this level of change is what working in national and local government is about – and comms is always on the front line. Since July, it has not only been supporting a new PM but also three new departments – covering Brexit, international trade, and business, energy and industrial strategy – and the reallocation of other portfolios.

Talk among civil servants of "being mogged" is not a cat-related incident on the walk up Downing Street; it is shorthand for getting caught in the turning parts of the ‘Machinery of Government’.

Sam Lister, group director of comms at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

Talk among civil servants of "being mogged" is not a cat-related incident on the walk up Downing Street; it is shorthand for getting caught in the turning parts of the ‘Machinery of Government’.

So what role does comms play? First, it is supporting the priorities of the new administration: economic, industrial and social reforms to underpin an economy, society and democracy that works for everyone. Policies are being developed that require wide-ranging engagement programmes, while two significant moments stand out in the months ahead: the Autumn Statement this month and the commitment to triggering Article 50 and the Brexit process by the end of March 2017.

Behind the scenes, organisational comms is also critical. There is the importance of co-ordination across Government, such as with business sectors on Brexit. And there are departments undergoing restructuring or starting from scratch. A new department, such as Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (created by the merger of the old Business and Energy & Climate Change departments) needs to establish its vision, values and culture, and all its comms subsets – from branding to channel strategy – to reach its new networks.

Herein lies an opportunity to meet the demands of modern Government and respond to the frustration, disempowerment and mistrust that undoubtedly contributed to the Leave vote on 23 June. It is an opportunity to shape organisations properly oriented to ‘listen’ as well as ‘tell’ – to understand thoroughly the issues affecting people across the UK.

Jim Macnamara, professor of public comms at the University of Technology Sydney (currently on secondment to the Government Communication Service), describes listening as the "missing essential" in the work of Government departments, agencies, corporations and NGOs. Comms often comprises little more than ‘turn-taking’ in speaking to the public, customers and employers, of ‘telling and selling’, with only token nods to listening and not much of it meaningful.

Creating the right culture of listening, and the channels to support it across all sectors of society, must be a central mission of public sector comms in our Brexit world. Change brings opportunity, and this would be a change for the better.

Sam Lister is group director of comms at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.