How do new digital communications channels are affecting elements of organisational policy and structure within government departments? The author explores and suggests some pragmatic changes
The internet has revolutionised the way that most of us communicate and engage with businesses, but government has often been slow to adapt. With this in mind, working withEconsultancy, we’ve recently interviewed Directors of Communication across UK government departments to understand their current use of digital engagement.
We found that all Departments are using some form of digital engagement with their internal and external stakeholders and wider public. In general, these activities are well targeted and effective, but there is certainly space for Departments to use digital channels more effectively and across a wider range of their activities.
Departments are sensibly not at the very forefront of digital engagement, but they are certainly keeping an eye on developments and are carrying out experiments that can scale if successful.
This feeling of being in a state of perpetual review and redevelopment is uncomfortable, but Departments are learning to work in a more agile manner through small incremental changes as well as through more traditional large-scale engagement initiatives.
Departmental digital engagement is predominantly broadcast
Departments see digital engagement grouped into five areas:
• Information – this is the area where they have made most progress in terms of improving Departmental web sites and the use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
• Marketing – most new initiatives are now developed with some form of digital channel at their core.
• Engagement – some Departments are beginning to move beyond broadcast into true multi-way collaboration with stakeholders, but most are still at a very early point in this process.
• Providing services – all Departments have some form of digital service delivery (even if it is only providing data and information online).
• Cost reduction – Departments look to digital engagement to provide cost savings compared with non-digital engagement options. This is not always as simple as it seems.
Digital engagement causing tension within Departments
The move towards more digital engagement is causing problems as well. The potential for all staff to use digital channels is causing tension within Departments as they work to update pre-digital processes, which do not work as effectively in the digital era.
In addition, the pace of change in terms of new channels and changing patterns of stakeholder demand is already rapid and is increasing in speed. This can cause further tensions, as many stakeholders’ contact with Departments can be sporadic, making it difficult to know how best to engage with them and through which channels. Engaging with stakeholders in their own spaces (online and offline) is in itself creating a whole new set of new learning opportunities for civil servants.
Six recommendations for government
The research generated six key recommendations. These are practical steps that we believe government Departments can take now to make best use of digital engagement, to make uptake more widespread and less challenging.
1. Promote senior level digital communications – the most advanced Departments have digital-savvy leaders who understand and use the new engagement opportunities to their full potential. There are considerable benefits in peer-to-peer experience sharing and learning in this area.
2. Better core stakeholder segmentation – Departments need to coordinate stakeholder engagement across the whole Department as well as within communications teams.
3. Message, audience, mechanism should drive use of digital channels – use of digital channels should be considered and outcome-driven; not led by technology or novelty.
4. The eCommunications team should lead on digital engagement – eCommunications teams have a good understanding of the emerging digital channels and a view of all of a Department’s activities.
5. Increase use of digital assets – Departments should consider engagement options such as widgets, applications and interactive media as an offering inthemselves, rather than as a translation of offline materials.
6. Ensure all staff have access to digital channels as needed for their work – infrastructure and policy constraints prevent most Departmental staff from accessing new digital channels. This prevents Departments benefiting fully from the digital engagement opportunities.
Using digital engagement to improve consultation
The real question though is how to apply some of the lessons from the research to assist real world policy development and consultation?
There has been a gradual change in policy making from the days of ivory tower-led white papers to the point where we have far greater input from stakeholders throughout the process. Despite this improvement, there is still very little genuinely two-way policy making.
The new digital engagement opportunities allow policy makers to go direct to the individual stakeholder. This is an exciting new opportunity and should prompt policy makers to supercharge their ambition, go well beyond their statutory duty to consult and give them a new and powerful lever for change.
Finally, managing a truly digital consultation requires engagement from both sides. The recent coalition Spending Challenge aimed to crowdsource savings opportunities across the public sector. However, the process was criticised for being an open page where anyone could make any comment they chose, rather than expressing direct comments on the savings opportunities themselves. The initial focus on suggestions from the public sector was sensible, as they are the experts in this sector. Unfortunately, the consultation process was not clearly set out at the start, e.g. there was little information given on how the comments would be used. This was made clear later on, but not before the consultation had been heavily criticised.
This is not a call for paragraph-level commentary on documents, or for the use of restricted groups. It will have to bring together policy makers, the evidence-based school of decision-making and collaborative use of the open data on data.gov.uk together with experts, crowds and individuals who might be affected by the policy. This is a call for policy making to be completely refactored for the digital age.
The report can be located online at: http://econsultancy.com/reports/digital-engagement-in-the-public-sector