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Digital communication is developing well among specialist teams within the UK government, however there is still work to do before it has been successfully integrated into mainstream departments and services.

This is the headline finding from the Cabinet Office Digital Communications Capability Review which was published on Friday.

The purpose of the review was to assess how the digital aspects of government communication and engagement are planned and executed, and how they can be improved.

As a consequence of the lack of mainstream adoption of digital, the government is being “outpaced by the best of the commercial and NGO worlds.”

The authors identified five main areas for improvement which serve as a framework for developing recommendations. They will likely be familiar to companies currently undergoing a programme of digital transformation:

1. Setting objectives, developing strategy and undertaking evaluation

Too many government communication initiatives lack clear objectives, which has an effect on defining the role for digital.

Furthermore, the government is stuck on broadcast mode so digital communication and engagement follows a top-down model rather than conducting two-way conversations.

This means that when objectives are set they tend to be focused on output metrics such as follower numbers, ‘likes’ and retweets, rather than changing perceptions or behaviours. To be fair, the government is not alone in making this fundamental error in its approach to digital, as many consumer brands have failed to adapt to the new two-way of communicating.

Within government this has led to a box-ticking approach to digital tools, sometimes with an apparent desire to impress managers rather than achieve worthwhile outcomes.

2. Leadership, culture and risks

The authors found an over-riding pre-occupation with risks and a widespread lack of trust in staff.

Much of this is linked to reputation management objectives which has fostered a risk averse culture, meaning that it is difficult to scale up digital engagement initiatives.

These problems are compounded by a general resistance to change and problems with ageing IT systems, which in some cases even block staff from accessing social media.

3. Skills and capabilities

Overall there needs to be more sharing of good practice among government departments, as currently teams are largely left to find their own way to digital excellence.

Most communication professionals use social media outside of work, so skills deficiencies are mainly to do with confidence and judgement in using technology in a professional context.

Furthermore, technical experts are distributed unevenly through departments, with some uncertainty as to whether they should be included in communications team at all.

4. Content development and marketing

Though there are some good examples of video, animation, still and digital tools, there is a lack of diversity in types of content and an over-riding focus on Twitter.

The reviewers detected that there was still an ethos of ‘Build it and they will come’ and ‘sending out stuff’, which often results in very low content views and poor levels of engagement and response.

The new Gov.uk website comes in for praise as it is an excellent example of user-focused design, however it:

  • Doesn’t lend itself readily to behaviour-change communications.
  • Doesn’t encourage sharing or engagement through social channels.
  • Is perceived by departments of having a rigid format which ensures consistency but constrains innovation around campaigning.

5. Structures

Across the government there is no clear leadership in developing digital communication and engagement.

The digital leaders’ cadre is more focused on other area such as digitising transactional services. As a result different tools are being trialled and bought in different departments, with limited formalised coordination and sharing.

Similarly, the GDS (Government Digital Service) is seen as operating at a remove from internal departments, both physically and in terms of close collaboration.

Within departments there is no natural home for digital communications experts, largely because departments are so different.

However the Department of Health and Defra are singled out for praise for the way in which they have approached adapted to embrace digital communications.

Finally, all departments have digital communication and engagement specialists who broadly focus on two areas of work.

The first is providing consultancy advice and expertise and helping the spread of skills and confidence. The second is in providing delivery where required, working with GDS colleagues, using their own resources or commissioning suppliers.

Solutions...

The problems faced by the UK government are common among large organisations trying to adapt to the digital age.

Therefore the solutions, which appear in full in the report, should make interesting reading for anyone currently undergoing a period of digital transformation.

It centres on creating a manifesto for change based on recommendations around:

  • Keeping up with mainstream communications techniques.
  • Digital ownership.
  • Altering attitudes to risk so decisions are balanced, logical and informed by business need.

The full cabinet office report can be downloaded here and if you’re interested in talking to Econsultancy about how we help organisations with digital transformation, get in touch.

David Moth

Published 18 November, 2013 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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