John Shewell: Public sector comms needs to make the case for change

Earlier this month the prime minister announced a radical overhaul of the NHS and at the same time issued a clarion call to innovate public services.

John Shewell: making the case for change
John Shewell: making the case for change

Without doubt, the public sector is facing its toughest test in decades. And the test is whether the sector can innovate at the required pace.

The public sector is at a crossroads on its destination towards change - one points to innovation, the other points to cuts and the third combines a bit of both.

Some local authorities have seized the challenge and are proposing sometimes radical and often novel ways to save money. Last week, Hammersmith & Fulham and Wandsworth Councils announced that they were in talks to merge their comms functions. They appear to be taking the first route, given that there are no expected redundancies.

But the real test for communications teams is whether they can successfully make the case for change and help their organisations navigate through these difficult times. If they fail they may be the victims of the change process itself.

The message boils down to two key themes: cut or innovate. Frankly, the more people shout about the cuts, the easier it should be to explain the reasons to innovate. As the old saying goes: if we do not change, we die!

But many communications teams are failing to grasp this properly. It's no wonder that seventy per cent of change programmes fail.

The failure is in understanding patterns of behaviour. Innovation equals change which equals fear. And fear generally spreads faster than optimism.

The antidote to fear is reassurance. And reassurance boils down to basic communications. Keeping people informed about what is happening, the reasons why and when it will happen.

Honesty and openness are two key principles - yes, the road ahead will be uncertain, but it's unlikely we're going to fall off the end of a cliff.

If communications don't make a compelling case about the reasons for change then the fears and resistance to change will inevitably grip and cripple progress.

A quick Google search yielded a stark disparity in the message between ‘cuts’ and ‘innovation’ in relation to the UK public sector.

The search returned only 40% with the word ‘innovation’, whereas 60% of the search was dominated by the word ‘cuts’.

While this is not a scientific approach, it still illustrates the gulf between the two messages and goes to show that communications teams have a lot of work to do just to catch up.

The public sector is not renowned for its pace, so building a convincing case is critical to the success of the change agenda, and restoring trust in the sector over the longer term.

For communications heads this is also an excellent opportunity to show the value of their teams by playing a central role in shaping the change agenda - both internally and externally.

This is about going beyond selling the message - it's about setting out the vision for the organisation, shaping the narrative and connecting it with purpose.

The latter point is critical - communications teams must connect vision with purpose - to show the golden thread that runs from the top to the bottom of the organisation.

Communications teams also have a unique opportunity to set out their stall and propose new ways of working.

Here are eight things communications should do in 2011:

1.    Involve staff in the change management process, including the design and delivery of the change programme

2.    Develop an explicit strategy to create a ‘learning organisation’ - one that seeks to connect with its people, partners and the public by listening and responding by way of a continuous feedback loop

3.    Review all communications activity and centralise budgets to make savings

4.    Focus campaigns on the big outcomes that matter most to residents and disregard the rest i.e. focus on a smaller set of priorities

5.    Shift communications away from the traditional broadcast model towards greater collaboration and involvement with staff and the community (co-creation)

6.    Spread social media across the entire organisation and allow teams to connect with the public on behalf of the organisation through a specific brand hierarchy strategy

7.    Explore an explicit strategy to sell communications services as a means of generating income

8.    Unify local public service communications to create greater economies of scale.

By doing these activities communications can demonstrate their value and become key players at the heart of the organisation; and truly help the organisation innovate and manage change.

John Shewell is the head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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