Alex Aiken’s army: Government launches Communications Plan

A quiet revolution is happening in Whitehall, and its Cromwell is Alex Aiken, recently appointed Executive Director of Government Communications. Under Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister and one of Aiken’s main political masters, the revolution has centred on making government communication fit-for-purpose in an age of austerity, to make it more effective and efficient- and more digital. When the economy picks up -and it will – communications will be ready for an age of enterprise, social mobility, security and sustainable growth.

Today’s publication of the Government Communications Plan 2013/14 is an eye-opener: 60 information-rich pages about what the government’s civil service machine is planning in each of its departments. I feared that the document would be too weighty with words and say little about concrete plans. I was wrong. Departmental Directors of Communications – Aitken’s vanguard to lead the revolution- have confidently set out their communications priorities, albeit at a high-level. It is no mean achievement: the Department of Health entry is impressive in cutting to the chase, and recognising that one of its top challenges is responding to the inquiry into the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation. The Home Office entry rightly emphasises the department’s partnership on counter-terrorism with three other departments: FCO, DFID and DCLG. Much detailed work will need to underpin this plan, but one can tell that shape and direction are there.

Aiken made a big success of his long tenure at Westminster City Council, shifting communications from being inward-looking and marginal, to being very focused on citizens and customers, and more strategic.

Maude is beginning to receive some credit from senior civil servants in focusing spend better. I am an independent expert reviewer. As the first Director of Communications of the Blair/Brown era, I was invited to see at first hand how the Cabinet Office team has introduced greater rigour and vigour in probing and assessing spending plans. Whatever personal communications style they bring, the best Directors of Communications enjoy command and managing people and budgets. A grip on resources and getting the best from people achieves sustainable results.

If you are a professional communicator, you put aside personal and political preferences, and you ruthlessly judge your efforts as might a seasoned poker-player: whatever hand you are given, you make it work for you, partly on the strength of the cards, partly through winning the psychological battle.

The Government Communications Plan stresses professionalism and propriety, and organises the communications community around four main disciplines:

– campaigns and marketing
– press and media
– digital
– internal communications

Aiken’s plan is bold and swift. It can only help motivate a talented yet hard-pressed staff who have not only seen significant reductions in their numbers, but a short-termism in communications. Aitken will need to battle against an undue focus on immediate media coverage at the expense of a more informed debate about improving choices for citizens and setting out Britain’s role in a fast-changing and more competitive world.

Whitehall communicators have less than two years to demonstrate that government communications is part of the solution, not part of the problem, that it is there for the citizen, whether this Government is re-elected or a new one is formed. All governments need trusted and proactive, professional communications. Not mentioned in the report is the need to appreciate the policy and political drivers to ensure communications initiatives are supported and have traction. The role of Special Adviser (or SpAd) is critical, particularly with ministers impatient for change. Despite, or because of, the complexities of Coalition Government, this generation of communicators has an historic opportunity to show what can be done with less, yet better targeted resource. Finance and HR have risen to the challenge – Government Communications must as well.

One of Aiken’s main tools for transformation is evaluation, particularly through reviews of the communications capability in each department, due to be completed by the end of this year. One can already tell that the government departments that seem to have been the most effective in their communications – DWP and HMRC- have a strong business focus: communications are aligned to policy and business objectives, and success is measured not just by specific outputs, but its contribution to outcomes. This plan reinvigorates departments whatever their size and scope. It will be quality of delivery that matters.

One of the unacknowledged successes of the Blair/Brown years was a sharper focus in some policy areas of Government machinery, for example Defra, DECC, Ministry of Justice and Communities and Local Government. Aiken’s network of communications “hubs” usefully boosts the potential of virtual teams to work across government to harness operations, spend and people. A strong example is the quartet of DCLG, DECC, DfT and Defra, organised under the umbrella of “infrastructure, communities, environmental and personal safety.” The DECC entry refreshingly makes the link explicit between its portfolio and the wider government agenda. It lists as one of its top priorities supporting the Government’s economic confidence-building agenda, by demonstrating the investment and jobs benefits in strengthening energy infrastructure, the UK’s largest sector for infrastructure investment.

Today is a milestone for government communications and government communicators. As communicators, we are sometimes a profession, often a trade, but at our best a craft. Our craft is a blend of the strategic, tactical and operational. Plans are good, but execution needs to be excellent.

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