THE LEADERS' REPORT

Capability

Moving beyond ability

Governments communicate in a fast-paced, fast-changing environment. Digital technologies and fragmented media have created entirely new dynamics between governments and those they govern. Yet while the demands placed on government communication have changed, their structures, processes and tools have not. The Leaders' Report reveals a shared sense among many communication leaders that their teams lack the agility to perform well in this new world – and that constant cost reductions have "filleted" them of the staff, skills, financial resources and knowledge they need. As one respondent commented, "we know we're missing a trick. We just don't know what that trick is".

Traditionally, government communication functions have focused on managing media coverage of their policies. Our research shows an increasing realisation that an effective government communication function must also:

  • Interact with citizens directly on social media
  • Produce high quality, rapid content
  • Run long-term, strategic behaviour change communication campaigns
  • Help citizens access digital public services across multiple touch points
  • Integrate communications across on- and off-line channels
  • Create direct channels to engage with the public, so that government can communicate with citizens without dependence on the ‘filter’ of the media.

The Detail

Respondents from both developed and developing economies acknowledge that citizens are constantly shifting to new communication channels and that they are increasingly skilled in navigating multiple platforms at once. Countering this calls for increasingly specialist skills, yet:

  • Only half of respondents believe they have the right tools and resources to do their job
  • Nearly one in five (19%) respondents was transferred into government communication from elsewhere in government and lacks any formal training in communication
  • Fourteen percent of respondents receive no training in communication; 22% receive less than two days communication training each year
  • Forty-three percent report being in post for more than 10 years; few have built up modern communication skills in that time.

There is little evidence that governments recognise the importance of communication or invest in it sufficiently. Few government communication functions, for example, appear to have any expertise in media planning – an increasingly vital tool. In many governments, the communication function and the marketing function are managed separately, making the co-ordination of integrated whole-of-government approaches difficult to introduce.

"The expectations [of what we need to do] changed overnight but the skillsets in the communications departments didn't. We've still got the same people so there is a capacity issue that's going to need to be dealt with." – Communication Leader, North America

The research identifies a particular lack of capability in areas such as social media, data analysis, audience segmentation and citizen engagement. With nearly a quarter (23%) of respondents entering government communication from journalism, it is perhaps unsurprising that media management is the skill most highly valued. However, it is widely acknowledged by communication leaders that this needs to change.

"The proof of the absolute stupidity of [our] government is that there is no communications training. We must draw inspiration from the best techniques of the private sector." – Communication Leader, Western Europe

One respondent explained that he needs three levels of sign off before publishing a tweet. Another complained that he is forced to hire generalist civil servants who lack both communication training and political experience: government policy prohibits him from hiring skilled practitioners from the private sector.

Our findings suggest that communication is insufficiently regarded within government as a profession. Many communication functions operate without:

  • A clear definition of what communication is
  • Defined processes and protocols
  • Effective talent management and the ability to move staff fluidly between roles.

What can be done?

The importance of skills development for effective operation in the 21st century was clearly illustrated by The Leaders' Report data. By looking at two key drivers in the quantative responses relating to performance and outward orientation, we were able to identify both high performing and low performing communication functions. The area of capability and skills building provided the greatest area of deviation between the two groups:

  • Seventy percent of high performers believe there is a strong focus on developing skills
  • Twenty percent of low performers shared this belief.

That a transformation is needed is clear. However, transformation must go beyond building ability (the knowledge to change something), to also build capability (the power to change something).

Building capability is not just about training: it is also about empowerment. In October 2016, Harvard Business Review noted that too often learning on its own does not lead to better performance because staff revert to their former ways of doing things.10 Clearly, a more strategic approach is required.

10 Building the workforce of the future, Harvard Business Review, October 2016

I think there should be some sort of clear and unified structure for communication, some guidelines for all entities to consider communication as a strategic function… rather than a support function. Communication is not HR, it is not IT. It's something that has an impact on society rather than the internal organisational environment.
Communication Leader, Middle East

We believe that building capability is as much about improving culture as it is about improving craft skills: focusing, as in the past, on individual skills and competencies (particularly around media management) is insufficient to build sustained organisational capabilities. Communications leaders should look at their:

  • Processes: do clear and established practices ensure government communicators work in the same way? Do processes support efficiency, flexibility, agility and speed?
  • People: do government communicators understand the competencies, behaviours, mind-set and culture expected of them? Is team working encouraged? Are teams empowered?
  • Structures: where does governance lie? Is decision making clear and visible? Are decisions made at the right time with the minimum acceptable oversight? Is collaboration and accountability incentivised?
  • Tools: do teams have the right mix of hard and soft skills? Can they develop strategy, manage and leverage data, and deliver consistently? How well do they influence? Are they operating as trusted advisers to policymakers and politicians alike?

Kantar, Performance Architect

Tools and approaches that can help

We offer a range of tools to help build capability within government communication teams, and improve delivery of government policy. These include:

  • Benchmarking teams against the attributes of success identified in this research
  • Carrying out capability audits and performance reviews
  • Developing training needs analyses and building competency frameworks
  • Designing organisational structures and governance and process models for communication teams
  • Creating and delivering training and executive education programmes.