Less media relations and fewer campaigns: GCS chief reveals vision for government comms

Alex Aiken, executive director of the Government Communication Service, has outlined the future of government comms, which will include moving away from using traditional media to disseminate information and having fewer campaigns.

Alex Aiken has set out his vision for the future of government comms
Alex Aiken has set out his vision for the future of government comms

The radical changes being considered come amid a cost-cutting ‘Reshaping GCS’ exercise led by Alex Aiken, which will slash the number of comms professionals working in government.

In a blog on the GCS website, Aiken suggests that the way forward will be to largely bypass the traditional media in favour of directly communicating with the public.

“Whatever means of delivery we choose, we need to minimise opportunities for our messages to become diluted or distorted,” he said. “In an age of disinformation and diminished levels of trust, we need to deliver our messages to the public using the most direct route.”

Aiken cited digital and social media as making this “easier to achieve”, adding: “The move to daily, televised No. 10 briefings from the New Year will allow for even more direct engagement with citizens.”

According to Aiken, direct communication “creates better conditions for building trust and providing information about government services".

Bigger picture

The move toward direct comms is part of Aiken's plan to build up the comms profession, which calls for more unity, collaboration and enhanced digital skills.

He did not refer to criticism of the Government's COVID-19 comms over recent months. Instead, when referring to the pandemic, Aiken said: “Communication professionals have demonstrated their value in helping leaders engage with internal and external audiences."

In his blog, he hinted at major cuts to campaigns, using the example of a recent Money and Pensions Service campaign that had a “rigorous review” which resulted in the budget being almost halved from £4.79m to £2.69m.

“Data will help us drive savings through fewer but better HMG campaigns, with a centralised budget to co-ordinate the work, procurement, use of agencies and resource on the Government’s key priorities that affect UK citizens," Aiken said.

Threat to jobs

He warned that comms people need to stay ahead of change. "Automation and artificial intelligence are already replacing some aspects of communications. To future-proof our expertise, we need to constantly reinvent and upskill ourselves to use emerging technologies and adapt our practice."

In July it emerged that the Government is to reduce its comms staff from nearly 4,000 to just hundreds, with the average team to be capped at 30 staff.

The news of the plan to bring comms staff under a ‘single employer model’ was leaked and caused “a lot of hurt and anger among many”, according to a GCS FAQ document leaked later that month.

The document revealed that the move to cut comms staff has been under consideration since 2014, but “the PM's personal backing now means this is the time to bring this into being”.

According to the FAQ, reductions in staff numbers will start in April next year, with the aim of completing them by April 2023. 

As for how rigid the cap on comms staff will be, the FAQ document said: “The prime minister and his team have made clear that there will need to be strong, clear evidence for more resources in a department or organisation.”

The Cabinet Office told PRWeek that the timescale for implementing staff reductions had changed since the leak of the FAQ document but did not reveal what the new timetable would be.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "Moving to a single employer model is just one aspect of our longstanding plan to unify and strengthen government communication. We will build on our achievements so we can improve our communications with the public, while improving the offer to all government Communications staff."

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