I was the only member of my first government digital communications team. I was a Website Manager, and managing a website was the limit of my responsibilities. Digital communication teams have got a bit bigger, and have become responsible for a few extra things since then.
When I look at the digital communication teams around Whitehall, I see lots of different ways to organise and do digital communication. Some digital teams run campaigns, some drive capability in others, some focus on policy engagement and social media, some on customer service, some build products and channels, some just publish content to GOV.UK.
There isn’t a single way to do it. But nor are all departments the same. Having worked in the Foreign Office and then the Department of Health, I can confirm that the culture, and the digital communications needs in different departments can be very different.
In the Department of Health, we have a pretty broad definition of digital. Our digital team is spread across two directorates, and is responsible for digital engagement, campaigns, insight and evaluation, content production, strategy, channels, and services. About half the digital team sit in the Communications Division and are responsible for digital communication. It’s this half of the team who have been following the digital communications capability review with most interest, and will be most affected by it.
We are far more ambitious about digital than we were a couple of years ago. We’ve had some successes using digital communication techniques in particular for:
- gathering intelligence for policymakers that can be used to make better decisions about our work
- internal collaboration, or niche consultations with small groups of people
- creating content that retains its usefulness because it uses new formats that suit the preferences of our audience
- extending the reach of messages or events, and targeting engagement, so that we include people who don’t have any other way to get involved in the work of the department
- analysing and evaluating digital and non-digital work, because working digitally enables us to sort and filter large amounts of data, and extract meaning
And we’ve developed a model that enables us to do more end-to-end digital communication, so that we are making our digital communication campaigns useful at every stage of the policymaking process, rather than just being useful when we need to publish, broadcast and explain the final product.
So for example, the work that Anna has led on dementia, one of the department’s policy priorities, has included:
- gathering and sharing intelligence, by monitoring and reporting on what people are saying about dementia policy online
- niche engagement, including open consultation with stakeholders on dementia research or dementia friendly communities at appropriate stages in the policy process
- content creation, including specific products to explain policy and visualise data and help our audience to make better decisions based on evidence (watch this space for more on that)
- extending reach, and building networks, finding and including people who have a useful contribution to make to the policymaking process
- scaling reach, including by working with our partners in Public Heath England, the Alzheimer’s Society and No 10 on citizen facing campaigns
To do all of this effectively, Anna has needed to use all of her digital communication expertise and experience. I’ve heard some take the view that the mainstreaming of digital skills will mean that there will be no need for expert digital communication teams in the future. I think the opposite is true. In my experience, when people within an organisation have better digital communication skills this increases the possibilities, and in turn increases the need, for people to design and lead ambitious digital communication campaigns.
So for example, now that officials like Mary Agnew are blogging and tweeting about the most important work of my department, the possibilities for a digital engagement specialist are increased rather than reduced. And the fact that our press officers, stakeholder managers and strategic communicators are now much more digitally savvy is a benefit to our specialist digital communicators rather than a threat. It just makes more integrated, more end-to-end digital communication more likely.
The role of the specialist digital communicator will keep on changing. But the opportunities to do brilliant work will only grow for those who are able to keep adapting their skills and increasing their ambition as more becomes possible.