I think we’re at our best when we’re at our most expert.
It’s a sentiment shared by the outgoing minister for the Cabinet Office who said the other day that the days of the gifted amateur are over, advising civil servants to “become the expert, become the best in the world at what you do. Don't flit around.”
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of DH 2020, the department’s programme to become a better, leaner organisation, and in the context of the evolution of our digital and communications teams.
I have a bias towards expertise of course, because I lead expert rather than generalist teams. And we’ve been on a drive to become more expert rather than less. Every time we’ve recruited into the digital team recently, we’ve asked ourselves the question “will this person add to our expertise?” As a result, I think we’ve recruited some brilliant people who are now helping us to lead increasingly sophisticated and impactful work.
It wasn’t always the case though. When I joined the department, I remember being struck by the relative absence of in house digital expertise. Expertise was something that civil servants tended to pay suppliers to provide, and in house specialists were scarce. The same was true across central government, and the Government Digital Service has done much to help reverse this.
The history of digital communications in government is partly the story of gifted amateurs - early adopters of social media who had sympathetic (or inattentive) bosses and were prepared to experiment. Some of my early forays into digital engagement, and those of my peers, were definitely the work of enthusiastic amateurs. But expectations are much higher now, and they should be.
As we design a new, smaller, communications function for the department it is tempting to reduce the number of expert roles. After all, the Modern Communications Operating Model (the blueprint for a government communications team) rightly sets high expectations for the mainstreamed skills of all communications professionals. If everyone has digital skills why would we still need in house digital experts?
But I think that would be a misreading of the operating model, and would run counter to the welcome trend towards a more expert civil service. I think the MCOM actually makes the case for different, more skilled, more expert communications teams in response to a massively disrupted communications landscape.
In practice, if we need graphic design, we either need an in house graphic designer to do it or we need to pay a supplier to provide those skills; if we need data science, we either need an in house data scientist or we need to pay a supplier who has those skills; if we need content, we either need an in house content designer or we need to pay a supplier to do it for us.
What we don’t want (in my opinion) is enthusiastic amateurs having a go at graphic design, data science or content design, because that’s when we’re at our least expert and our least effective.
That’s why, as we reshape our department, I’ve been making the case to continue our drive to bring experts into the department, alongside our drive to mainstream new skills in all staff. Because I think we’re at our best when we’re at our most expert.