GovComms Festival Keynote

The GovComms Festival: 11 weeks ago an idea, today a reality.

170 speakers from 17 countries. More than 100 plus hours of content on 5 stages over a 24-hour period. Those, ladies and gentlemen, are the numbers of a community with a story to tell and an important job to do. A global community of government communicators and educators with a common purpose, common challenges, and common opportunities.

These communicators and educators from both the public and private sector are ready to use the GovComms Festival platform to teach, share their experiences and prepare attendees to strengthen communities and improve the well-being of citizens at a time when it is so desperately needed. At the heart of the trust and understanding the world will need to respond to COVID-19 is effective communication.

During this very first GovComms Festival, we come together to learn, to laugh, to share stories and expertise… and to begin a journey that will progressively strengthen a capability, a communication muscle, that will be critical for the effective operation of governments in the many challenging years ahead.

We don’t know when the health crisis in many parts of the world will subside and we don’t know what this crisis will ultimately mean for our jobs, for our families, our businesses, and our communities.

We live in precarious and uncertain times.

But what we do know is that government, at a local, state, national and multi-lateral level, will play an increasingly influential role in our lives. As we unpick the burden of COVID-19 and rebuild, citizens, civil society, businesses, and communities will look to their governments for leadership and solutions. They will look to their governments to make the right decisions based on their needs. Put simply, if governments are to deliver for their people, they will have to communicate effectively.

Governments will need to listen, to be empathic, to speak carefully and clearly. They will need to reach citizens in the places where they spend time with stories in formats they embrace and prefer. As governments work as an enterprise to deliver their services, effective communication will underpin the alignment and teamwork necessary to encourage their public servants, communities, and countries to work together in a way we have not seen since the end of the Second World War.

I thank the OECD for the opportunity to come together as a community as part of their Government After Shock global dialogue and thank all of the speakers who have been so generous in giving up their valuable time to share their knowledge, skills, and experience with you.

I would like to particularly thank Griffith University. When I first raised with Professor Sharyn Rundle Thiele the opportunity for her Social Marketing team to get involved, she not only said yes immediately, she quickly followed it up with a commitment to put together a 24-hour program of world-class social marketing education. I cannot thank her or the University enough for making such a generous contribution to this Festival in what has been a massively challenging time for universities around the world.

Why do government communicators need to come together?

For me, it was the research by the Government and Public Sector practice at WPP a few years ago that grabbed my attention and described the extent of the challenges the government communication function faces.

In summary, it found that, all over the world, the government communication function is underappreciated, ineffective, and under-resourced. It is an end of the line function that struggles for relevance and influence in a world dominated by policymakers. It is largely tactical and under pressure to deliver for increasingly demanding ministers.

But the good news is that, while this might be our starting point, the rapidly evolving context driven by digital technology that is changing the expectations of citizens and stakeholders, accelerated by the impact of COVID-19, is pushing that very influence and relevance our way. And fast.

COVID-19 will be the moment when everything changed for government communicators. It is a huge opportunity, but we must be good enough to take it. Digital transformation is our opportunity to escape the basement, to earn our seat at the table, and to lead.

Communications driving digital transformation

Up until now, digital transformation in government has belonged to our friends in ICT. The citizen experience has been defined by technologists and success judged by how quickly and easily people could move into and out of engagement with their government. This widely held mission, which is still strongly held, is based on a historically false premise that people are not interested in government. That somehow, people don’t care what their government has to say.

Well, people care do care about what their government has to say and what they do …. and that has been overwhelmingly proven during COVID-19. This interest will only increase as governments take on an increasingly influential role in society. People do want to know and understand the decisions of their government, but what they don’t care for is a poor experience. They don’t want pages and pages of static text content and they don’t want to work hard to find the information they need.

But they do want to be engaged. Conditioned by their latest best digital experience, citizens want useful, relevant, and consistent content delivered to them in their preferred media format, at the time, in the channel, and on the device of their choosing. It is a high watermark, but it is one to which all of us who work in government communication must aspire.

We must find ways to develop the skills, processes, and mindsets that create useful, relevant, and consistent citizen-centred content to explain policies, programs, services, and regulations in terms that people understand.

But, as the world becomes more digital, more data-rich, and more reliant on technology, we cannot do it by ourselves. Communication teams must build multi-disciplinary teams from across our departments to give us the insights, skills, and technology to deliver. We must be the curious, ‘’people  persons’’ who invite ourselves into the conversations we were previously left out of.

Communicators as influencers and drivers of change

To be influential, we have to bring together strategy, data, technology, stakeholder engagement, behavioural science, and communications in a single joined-up capability that supports our policy, program, and regulatory colleagues to deliver new and better services that meet the well-understood needs of citizens and stakeholders. Working in agile teams, we should also look further afield for insights from our HR, legal, and finance colleagues and bring the voice of the citizen and stakeholder to the policy table.

Of course, we must continue to improve our core business and responsibilities in strategy, planning, media, and content but these cross-functional, multi-disciplinary, collaborative teams will challenge the traditional siloed structures.

I also see a future where we are working with our people and change colleagues to be capability builders in our organisations. Recently published McKinsey research for the Confederation of British Industry found that 9 out of 10 employees will need to reskill by 2030. It’s a staggering number.

And when you look at the skills McKinsey says people need to contribute to our digital future, it’s not just STEM but skills that are right in our wheelhouse. Interpersonal and advanced communication skills, leadership, management, and critical thinking. These areas of development could and should be the core business for government communication and engagement teams.

This is where we can lead.

Future government communication and engagement teams will look very different from what they do today and for me, this vision of delivering a joined-up capability with a mission to build capability across our organisations is the vision we need to work toward in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Now I accept that this is, in many cases, a long way from where we are today, but that’s why vision is important. And of course, there will be many people lying in the tall grass to knock this vision over because it challenges their view of the world and traditional hierarchies and practice. But the good news is that technology doesn’t care for traditional hierarchies and practice, and it certainly doesn’t care for individual fiefdoms and siloes with seemingly impenetrable barriers.

That gathering storm you can hear in the distance is the capacity and potential of 5G technology, the Internet of Things, cloud-based computing, mobility, data, and artificial intelligence, and it is coming to wreak havoc on anyone who is not prepared to reskill and reskill quickly. This ominous power, which is fueling the increasing demands and expectations that citizens and stakeholders have of governments, is our new reality. It is already creating unsustainable pressures on government.

The old top-down, command-and-control decision making models with their multi-layered authorising environments are stressed and creaking under increasing demands. The walls of the siloes are set to burst as technology demands horizontal over vertical collaboration. This is why this evolving context is so compelling for communicators.

With over 14 billion mobile phones in the world and the ability for everyone who owns one to express a view, governments need to provide information to fuel those conversations. Governments must listen, must understand, must challenge misinformation, and must explain their policies, programs, services, and regulation in a way that people can understand and appreciate. People may not like it but if they understand it, they are much more likely to accept it.

But the question for us as government communicators is are we ready to lead?

Are we ready to be bold enough to invite ourselves to the table?

Are we ready to have difficult conversations and push back on conventions?

Are we ready to acquire and continue to refine the necessary, knowledge, skills, behaviours, and attitudes to make the most of this new reality?

Are we ready to assemble and lead multi-disciplinary teams that look like the communities we represent?

Are we ready to argue for the need to change the way policy is developed and communicated?

Are we ready to teach our colleagues who work closer to citizens and stakeholders the skills to be more effective communicators?

Are we ready to adopt a mindset of continuous improvement?

I hope you are because that is what the heart of the GovComms Festival and indeed the GovComms Institute are all about. They are about listening and learning from your colleagues from all over the world and beginning that journey to influence.

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