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Hold on, I think we might have fundamentally different ideas about what comms is

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This is the third in a series of blogs about my role in DH 2020, the department’s programme to become a better, leaner organisation.

At the Department of Health we are redefining and restructuring many of our teams as part of our drive to become a better, leaner organisation.

The role and responsibilities of our digital teams will change as a result, and so will other bits of the department, including our communications function.

Many of the conversations we’ve had in preparation for these changes have been about how we create structures and ways of working that best reflect the role and purpose of the department.

We have several blueprints to guide us - things like the Service Design Manual and the Modern Communications Operating Model. They’re useful, but we need to design our functions to fit the particular needs of the department and our relationship with the wider health and care system. The blueprints can’t do that for us, so we’ve had to take the time to ask ourselves some fairly fundamental questions about what we’re all here to do.

During our conversations and workshops about all this it struck me how varied people’s views were about the nature of our work, particularly about communications work.

I’ve heard people express attractively simple definitions of what government communications is for, along the lines of: “We’re here to deliver messages on behalf of the government, and manage breaking stories”. There’s a clear logic to this. It allows us to prioritise the most important people and issues in the organisation, and the most urgent tasks. And if we take this as our starting point, designing a communications function is a fairly straightforward task.

I favour a slightly different view though, along the lines of something I’ve heard Russell Davies say about not needing traditional marketing if the thing works (“the product is the service is the marketing”).

Because if we get the substance of our work right, and if we take the time to make sure that our products, services and policy meet the needs of our users, and if we do it all openly, enabling people to participate in the process, then we should be better able to achieve what the department needs, and we will probably reduce the need for reactive communications work in the process.

Here’s an example: Last year the department ran a consultation about the NHS England Mandate. We didn’t do it with any fanfare, and it was one of the few occasions that our digital team didn’t get involved in the design of the ways that people could respond to a consultation. In the event, the absence of communications became a story, 38 degrees ran a campaign to draw attention to it, the consultation received 130,000 responses (when we might have expected a few hundred), and we had to do lots of reactive communications work.

With hindsight, we might have been better off applying more of our expert communications skills to the design of the consultation product and the engagement exercise. We would probably have received more useful input into the policy making process as a result.

During the workshops we’ve run about how to design our new communications function, I found myself categorising people as being inclined to either “get messages out” or “get the product right”. I was struck by how set some people’s views seemed to be (in both groups), and how little each group properly understood the work of the other.

But of course, it should be possible to design a communications function that does many things well. A team in which people with responsibility for the grid of announcements and reactive media, work alongside and with those with responsibility for longer term engagement, content and product design, and a team in which both groups recognise and benefit from the respective professional expertise of the other. That’s what we’ll be trying to do.

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