Communications training to Government Communicators

Building high-performing and future-proof Public Communicators

This month I’m going back to the very deep well that is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) report on public sector communication.

It is Aladdin’s cave for anyone with an interest in public communication.

I can’t recommend the report highly enough as it nails the challenges and opportunities for content marketing in the public sector.

As the great Australian music critic Molly Meldrum used to say, “Do yourself a favour’’.

Here is a link to the Executive Summary—Redefining the role of public communication in an evolving information ecosystem.

But to set the scene. The good people of the Open Government branch of the OECD decided it was time to assess the role, importance, and impact of effective public communication. The Covid-19 pandemic inspired a rush to digitally create new opportunities for government to engage with and listen to citizens. The OECD report was based on survey responses from 46 countries as well as the European Commission to the OECD 2020 Understanding Public Communication Surveys. The questionnaires targeted centres of government (CoGs) and ministries of health (MHs), to ensure both a whole-of-government perspective as well as a sectoral one from a key service-providing ministry were captured.

I won’t rehash the report, but I will focus on a key finding of the financial resourcing of the function, human resources, and skills.

The news is neither surprising nor encouraging.

The lack of human resources and skilled staff members was selected by more than three-quarters of CoGs (76%) and MHs (79%) respectively as one of the top three challenges to conducting core communication functions. Stop for a second and look at those numbers. They are huge.

The report found that ‘’Promoting efforts toward professionalisation, through the multiple areas of specialisation of this function will benefit from dedicated training, including on new digital trends, and from retaining talent through ongoing learning opportunities and setting good practice standards’’

So, what are the ‘’multiple areas of specialisation’’ and how do we create high performing, multi-function teams able to listen and then effectively explain policy, program, services, and regulations.

Step 1 is senior executive buy-in. You are dead without it!

If the executive leadership team aren’t buying what you are selling, find a better way to demonstrate your impact. They get it, but they just have lots of other competing priorities on their plates. The very highest levels of the bureaucracy worry about what the Ministers worry about; so, try and describe your impact through that lens.

Trust is low, people are cynical and the scourge of mis- and disinformation is everywhere. Start with a thesis and start with a manageable content program. Test and learn. Demonstrate impact. Ask for more.

Step 2 is changing the way you think about communication and engagement.

The communication function is no longer the exclusive preserve of central communication teams. Technology and its impact on the behaviour of citizens and the ministers’ offices have taken care of that. In a mobile-first world where everyone carries a supercomputer in their hands, citizens and stakeholders are demanding input and answers faster.

We need to redefine how we think about who is on the communication and engagement team. The first place to look is within the organisation. Legal, HR (with a particular interest in the ongoing need for learning and development), Data and ICT are four functions that need to be invited to discuss the stories you are looking to tell and how you are going to tell them. The good people in policy and program land are also very much part of the team so invite them on the journey.

Central communication areas will become centres of excellence which much of the doing being devolved to line areas. What you need to design is an adaptive system with a clear purpose (improve understanding, receive feedback, and build trust) that can move and shift depending on context and priority.

So, when it comes to those specialist skills, what do we need to make our adaptive system hum?

Here is a list to start:

  • Strategic communication planning
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Project management and change management
  • Market research (insights)
  • Behavioural science (persona development)
  • Content strategy
  • Creative
  • UX/UI and Accessibility
  • Plain English writing (speeches)
  • Media relations
  • Graphic design
  • Video, audio, animation, stills
  • Social media
  • SEO/SEM
  • Data analytics (insights)
  • Software (digital platform)
  • Monitoring and evaluation.

So, looking around at the way your teams are set up today, how are you tracking?

Are you thinking about the impact of digital trends?

Have you started planning your skill development programs?

The hard truth is that, whether you like it or not, this future is coming, and it is coming fast.

And that’s before automation, 5G, artificial intelligence, machine learning, mixed reality (AR/VR/metaverse) and quantum computing make what we are doing today look quaint and old-fashioned. The enterprise is and will perpetually be reinvented.

The impact of digital technology is indiscriminate. It doesn’t respect organisational charts and is not much interested in job descriptions. The challenge is to work out what those changes will be and how you can be useful. It means you will have to be curious in your discovery, clear in your communication, comfortable with uncertainty and committed to ongoing education and learning. It’s a big scary change that is heading our way but as communication professionals, my view is that it is our biggest opportunity.

The OECD has done the world a big favour by shining a spotlight, for the very first time, on this critical and important function.

Will we be good enough and smart enough to take it?

I would love to know your thoughts.

The latest GovComms podcast Features two of the OECD’s Policy analysists, Carlotta Alfonsi and Karine Badr to discuss the OECD report on Public Sector Communications:

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