We are fishing out the hidden communicators

You don't need to be Machiavellian to rid departments of unaccountable 'embedded' communicators.

Sam Lister: director of comms at the Department of Health
Sam Lister: director of comms at the Department of Health

A former government director of comms, who shall remain nameless, had a nifty solution for what he used to call the "embed issue".

The challenge was how to keep tabs on people quietly hired in by policy officials to do some form of comms, but who slipped under his radar of responsibility for prioritising resource, assuring quality and assessing spend on his department’s comms work.

The solution? Send an email round his department inviting those working in comms to come to a cheese-and-wine soiree hosted by their head of profession. Count the attendees, note down the unfamiliar faces, and then send off a professional appraisal request the week after.

It may be apocryphal (he never seemed quite that Machiavellian) but it highlights a longstanding tension around the use of embedded communicators in Whitehall. The best of this breed are perfectly good – informed about policy and able to address specific issues with a targeted solution.

They are not as well sighted on wider departmental objectives or other key campaigns, and often sit adrift from learning and development programmes, but they are professional and an extra resource. But the bad cases are black market comms: work commissioned off the ‘comms books’ without the specialist knowledge of the skills needed or the quality of work provided.

The significant squeeze on public sector finances has helped speed reform in this area. Government communication spend has dropped by 65 per cent in the past five years to £280m (with health accounting for a quarter of it). The pressing need to prioritise, flex resource and show value for money is bringing Whitehall departments round to a comms agency model.

Rather than have communicators sitting embedded in full-time positions within policy teams, irrespective of the fluctuations in demand, departments are appreciating the benefits of a centralised specialist function, to be deployed against the business plan and adapted as the prioritisation sharpens with budget pressure.

In 2012, a best guess of embedded communicators operating in the Department of Health, but outside the comms division, was about 55. It was probably at the high end for Whitehall departments, but not unusual. It is now just a handful, and almost all with reporting lines into the central comms team.

This stretches not only across departments but also to arm’s length bodies. Departments and their agencies increasingly work to a group operating model, sharing some strategic objectives and responsibility for comms programmes, joining up on procurement where appropriate, becoming more integrated on building capability to the standards of the Government Communication Service, and sharing expertise.

It may seem the obvious modus operandi, but it has taken time and tightening purse strings for the Government to wake up to it. And where it still hasn’t happened, there may yet be the need for another round of invitations to a (low budget) cheese-and-wine evening.

Sam Lister is director of comms at the Department of Health

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