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Innovation and Improvement

The fast pace of technological innovation is profoundly changing our world and opening up new opportunities for how we can deliver world-leading public communications.

This rapid evolution within communications calls on us to adopt a culture of continuous improvement, embrace innovation and experimentation, and learn from best practice.

The greatest advances will not be made by large change programmes driven by the centre of government, but by each GCS member feeling empowered to make small improvements each day. Hundreds of small incremental improvements drive big change. We want to create a culture where each GCS member is encouraged to take regular steps to improve communications practices, lower costs, and increase quality in service to the public. Each member of GCS should see it as part of their role to upskill non-communicators within government to be better customers of the communications function.

Knowing what works well and improving our effectiveness in delivering outcomes are essential ingredients of a modern communications campaign. Digital campaigns give us new opportunities to implement increasingly rapid cycles of listening, measuring, evaluating, and quickly adapting to what works best. There are many examples of inspirational work like this being delivered by teams across GCS, where data-driven insights and experimentation have driven better outcomes.

As well as small steps there are some areas where we need bigger leaps. GCS needs to value – and be seen to value – innovation, experimentation and creativity. We need a revolution in our digital, data, and content creation skills. We need to drive better value for money for taxpayers, working out how to reallocate resources to changing priorities. And we need updated professional standards that apply our enduring civil service values to a modern setting.

Improving digital content

Even combining use of print newspapers and newspaper websites and apps, fewer than half (49%) of UK adults get their news from newspapers. TV (79%) and the internet (73%) are the most used platforms for news. BBC One remains the most-used news source across any platform (62%), followed by ITV (46%) and Facebook (36%). (Source: News Consumption in the UK, Ofcom, 2021)

This does not mean that the government should abandon its focus on the print media, which is still read by millions and shapes much of our politics. However, we must do more to increase broadcast and digital expertise to reach new audiences.

Broadcast media

Despite 24 hour broadcast news and the transformative effect of social media, government communications is still disproportionately focussed on print media and twice daily lobby briefings. There are pockets of exceptional broadcast and digital capability within GCS but these skills overall are in short supply. GCS professionals should be thinking about visuals at the start of planning for announcements, with greater consideration shown in the construction of media plans.

Being able to plan the visuals, talking heads and story-development for a compelling broadcast package is a specialist skill. Alongside general broadcast training, every department should have broadcast expertise able to build relationships with broadcasters and achieve broadcast coverage. We will seek to attract experienced broadcast professionals into GCS to increase this skill.

Digital capability and an enhanced No10 digital hub

Digital content creation is a specialist practice. The skills needed to develop great content include content creation, story planning, editing and post-production, search engine optimisation, content promotion and data analytics. Despite some criticism of GCS employing photographers and videographers, an arresting image is critical for ‘stopping the scroll’ and cutting through with the public on social media.

Data analysis and visualisation are becoming core skills for future communicators. The mass availability of data released via an API is creating data journalists with the ability to query statistics and turn them into visuals almost as soon as they are released. Tools are available which allow anyone to scrape data from multiple sources and present them in compelling visual formats.

Data analysis and presentation needs to be a core competency for government communicators. We need our own expert data hubs and the data savvy to be able to tell a compelling and accurate story through data visualisation and infographics.

Our ambition is for a world-leading digital and content capability that can support two-way communication with the public. We will develop a central strategy and model of best-practice for digital, led by an enhanced digital communications team based in No10. This digital hub will provide strategic direction to the digital communication profession across the GCS. It will have responsibility for No10 digital channels and develop and drive the digital communications strategy across government. It will help to join up digital channels, so that when different government departments are speaking on the same issue they do so with one voice and a coherent digital tone, style and message.

As we move to use social media in a bolder and more decisive fashion, it is imperative that we drive up the quality and consistency of digital products across government. The effectiveness of content should be properly monitored and evaluated, with high-performing teams and content celebrated with a view to replicating success. We will update the GCS evaluation framework to include stronger standards for evaluating digital content. We will ensure the role of digital content teams is properly reflected in the Modern Communications Operating Model and GCS functional standard.

Harnessing technology to improve impact

The world is in the midst of an unprecedented technological revolution that is transforming economies, societies and governments in complex and unpredictable ways. From applied artifical
intelligence (AI) and automation, to next-generation computing, technological progress is accelerating faster than ever.

Our vision is a GCS seizing the opportunities of the revolution in technology, analysis, research and data to dramatically improve the impact of government communications and the lives of citizens.

Data and innovation

Data science, engineering and AI are increasingly important for the future of communication and marketing. Their application is focussed in marketing today, but it is something every communications discipline should be thinking about, from internal communications to stakeholder engagement.

The volume of data created in every area of life is increasing exponentially. As more behavioural signals are collected and processed by AI and machine-learning algorithms, we will be able to massively improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our communications.

Today, we spend millions of pounds on advertising that is seen by many for whom it is irrelevant. In future, the effective use of data will help us to target and segment the audience more effectively. It can help us to personalise messages. It can help us to test and iterate content. Most importantly, it can help us to deliver relevant, interesting and engaging content that matters to the public.

Communications campaigns will become increasingly focused on techniques which use data to deliver an individual experience, with less use of mass communications. If we get this right, then we will be able to use our insights and rich data to start to transform government communications from mass market to personalised, predictive, one-to-one conversations with individuals.

Imagine how our public sector recruitment campaigns could be transformed by better reaching those considering a change of career. Or how a business owner could be helped through the entire process of exporting overseas for the first time by a virtual assistant. Or health outcomes transformed by being able to provide a personalised programme of health improvement with messages delivered in a way that is most likely to encourage a change of behaviour for a particular individual.

The change is so fundamental that it can feel fantastical. But the future is not far away, and will be realised in a series of small steps. It is deliverable, in parts, during the lifetime of this strategy and it is happening already. During the Covid-19 pandemic we developed a vaccinations chatbot to provide personalised conversations about the Covid-19 booster, and we developed a WhatsApp tool which used AI-automated responses for inquiries on Covid-19.

Harnessing the potential relies on getting four things right: people, partnerships, policy and practises. We need the skills and capability to leverage data to identify audiences, enhance service, and interpret, analyse and act upon insight. That means people who can find, manage, and convert data into a meaningful strategy. We need partnerships with key platform providers such as Facebook and Google, as well as with key internal partners such as GDS. We need policies that allow us to collect and use data fairly and transparently. And we need practises that ensure that standardised data collection and consistent measurement are incorporated early in campaign planning.

Collaborating and organising for innovation

We will begin with the assumption that we do not have all the answers, focusing on collaboration across GCS with other functions such as with GDS, and with external partners to test and scale the most promising ideas.

GREAT Campaign phone box in a US city

Smart collaboration with partners will go beyond merely sourcing ideas to explore the most efficient and effective routes to scale and systematise change. We will follow the lead of high-performing innovators, developing and maintaining critical innovation networks.

Innovation involves an investment in the future which can be difficult to achieve given day-to-day demands. The UK Government has built dedicated innovation labs, such as the Policy Lab, to design and scale new tools and techniques. We will establish a virtual ‘GCS Innovation Lab’ to create the capability required to identify, develop, test, execute and scale system changing innovation for Government Communications.

Innovation Strategy

By October 2023, we will publish a GCS Innovation Strategy that will review and outline the external societal and technological trends shaping the environment for Government Communications, identifying the key issues for us to solve and how we can harness the opportunities of the revolution in technology and data to build a culture of innovation in GCS.

The Strategy will outline how we can streamline routine tasks and transform operational efficiency through automation. It will consider how we can leverage applied AI in line with the UK National AI Strategy, from natural language processing to speech technology to help us listen, understand and interact with our audiences in new ways. It will look at how we can better utilise cloud computing capabilities and leverage the data opportunity as per the UK National Data Strategy, and how we can prepare for the future of connectivity and next generation computing over the next decade.

The GCS Innovation Strategy will also identify the current opportunities and challenges of the GCS innovation ecosystem building on the important findings of the ‘The Mackintosh report’ as a strategy for developing and scaling innovation in Government.

Building a sustainable pipeline of innovative ideas

Innovation depends on our ability to get the best ideas into the GCS innovation pipeline. We will build a repeatable process for idea generation to enable breakthrough innovation. In addition, we will develop an ‘open innovation’ capability supported by the Open Innovation Team, positioning GCS to look beyond our own boundaries and gain access to ideas, knowledge, and technology from across government, civil society, academia and the private sector to add significant value to our pipeline of ideas.

Data Strategy

Technology and data are intrinsically linked in today’s online world. Fundamental to the successful delivery of more effective and efficient communications will be seizing the opportunities
of technology in leveraging data and advanced analytical techniques.

Much of data in government, however, exists in organisational silos and in hard-to-use legacy technology platforms. Data and technology is organised around departmental and organisational uses, hampering efforts to speak with a single voice and delivering citizen-first communication.

To deliver on our joint objectives with an audience-first focus we need to develop new ways of sharing, measuring and leveraging our combined data – overcoming silos and joining up to deliver the type of seamless and personalised experiences that citizens expect now.

By March 2024 we will develop and publish a GCS Data Strategy, collaborating with government and external partners, following the direction set by the National Data Strategy.

The strategy will set out how GCS will better collect, pool and share our data so we can activate and analyse in depth the impact of communications and drive effectiveness and efficiency. It will also address how GCS will keep its data safe, and ensure it is used ethically and in a fully compliant manner – importantly, bolstering GCS’s ability to address the challenges posed by the growth of AI and machine learning for government communication, and support the GCS Innovation Strategy.

Improving efficiency throughout GCS

The Reshaping GCS Programme

The Reshaping GCS programme was launched in Summer 2020 with a view to delivering a smaller, more joined-up Government Communication Service.

The aim of modernising GCS and making it more efficient and effective was the right one.

However, we have learned from that programme that any reductions in headcount or resource need to be achievable and sustainable. While the centre can help develop design principles, provide challenge, and give practical support for implementing change, decisions on staffing sit with Departments and ALBs.

Reducing headcount

While we only have validated data on headcount for the last two years, we know that the size of GCS has grown. GCS played a critical role in responding to the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid-19, and it is no surprise that departments invested in communications during this period.

According to the latest GCS Data Audit, there were 7,200 FTE performing communications activities across government and ALBs in August 2021. FTE remained broadly flat over the year. Core departments decreased in size by 8% since the 2020 audit while ALBs increased by 3%. ALBs make up approximately 70% of GCS FTE comms resources.

The median size of a communications teams in an ALB is 8.9 FTE, whereas the median size of a communications team in a Government Department is 89.7 FTE. 47 ALBs reported no communications resource whatsoever, while the largest, NHS England, has 273 FTE (and has understandably increased resources during the pandemic).

After such a demanding few years, it is the right time to challenge ourselves to reduce resources. We will establish regular data reporting and a new comms business planning cycle to challenge departments on how they are driving efficiency and reducing headcount.

Decisions for headcount remain with departments. We are not enforcing an across the board percentage reduction. This would penalise Departments who have already reduced headcount while rewarding those with over-inflated headcount. Instead we will exercise professional judgement about where activity could be delivered more efficiently or work prioritised more effectively.

Some Departments and ALBs have made considerable progress already. In 2021, the Home Office reduced comms FTE by 39% (217 to 133). At the same time, staff engagement scores increased by 7 percentage points. Ofsted reduced its comms team by 32% (38 to 26) and the Insolvency Service by 42% (26 to 15).

We will use our data to target and support departments and ALBs to drive efficiencies through functional standards. The central GCS team will lead by example. We have already started work to design and consult on a new smaller but stronger central GCS structure with a view to delivering this by October 2022.

Driving efficiency in paid for campaigns

Using our learning and innovations from the past we propose to deliver further substantial improvements in efficiency across paid for campaigns.

Outcome-focused campaigns. Smart targets and measurement are critical to the success of every campaign and a demonstration of the value that marketing investment can deliver for the taxpayer. Our evaluation framework already provides clear guidance to those designing campaigns and will be updated further for digital metrics. Supported by behavioural insight and econometric modelling, we will ensure every campaign has clear citizen-focused outcomes and performance metrics that are continuously monitored.

Harnessing data. Access to richer, real-time data will enable government marketeers to deliver more audience-focused, agile and high-performing campaigns than ever before. By consolidating relevant citizen data sources and enriching these with actionable insight, we will be able to develop more sophisticated audience segmentation that ensures campaigns are more compelling, personally relevant and effective.

Focusing on owned and earned platforms first. The government is a powerful communications platform in its own right, with Ministerial interviews and social media feeds reaching millions of people every day. Assessing and quantifying the impact of these channels and co-ordinating messages more effectively across them, will enable us to reduce costs associated with paid for campaigns. Our campaigns will in the future be planned around a total, multi-disciplined view of impact from across owned and earned channels, with paid-for investment targeted to accelerate, deepen or amplify policy outcomes

Leveraging the power of partnership. Central government has a unique role in convening and coordinating the public, private and third sectors. Our ‘You Are Not Alone’ domestic abuse campaign demonstrated how a compelling purpose-driven proposition can attract support from influencers and businesses. We will seek to build more strategic partnerships with businesses, local authorities and community organisations across the UK to engage citizens directly and via trusted voices at lower cost than paid-for channels.

Fewer, bigger, better campaigns. In a cluttered communications environment, it is vital that government marketing reduces the quantity of messages it delivers to similar audiences and focuses on the quality of communication. Greater collaboration across government will ensure that we focus on fewer, essential campaigns that leverage stronger brands to build greater attention and engagement over the long term as well as increasing public trust in government communications.

Continuous campaign improvement. Technology offers us the opportunity to test and learn throughout the campaign lifecycle, optimising performance on a weekly – or even daily basis if needed, rather than evaluating at set points during the campaign. Test and learn will become the cornerstone of our future approach.

Developing in-house skills. We will have a renewed focus on developing high quality skills in-house, so that we only procure the most specialist services externally. We have already demonstrated how high-quality content creation, partnership development, video production and multi-variant testing can be delivered by talented civil servants.

GCS team members collaborating at work

A stronger commercial strategy

We will invest in specialist contract management resource to make sure people managing contracts have the capability to negotiate contracts and manage contracted suppliers effectively. We will find ways to buy smarter across GCS and maximise our buying power in the marketplace to drive even more value for the public purse and influence supplier and market-level behaviour.

The GCS central team will continue to partner with Crown Commercial Service on behalf of all government departments and ALBs to ensure greater value for money, more agility and a wider range of specialist services available to deliver communication services. We will develop category plans to ensure that we are meeting the needs of today and the future, developing new markets where they do not exist and unlocking benefits from innovation.

We will collaborate and work with Commercial colleagues to simplify and speed up procurement processes, removing unnecessary bureaucracy and embedding consistent application of commercial standards to allow us to deliver at pace and with agility.

Maintaining public trust in communication

Public confidence and trust in government communications is critical to our national security and well-being.

Misinformation, disinformation and malinformation

Misinformation and disinformation are a genuine threat to our democracy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology and social media have been used to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected. However, this same technology is also enabling misinformation and disinformation to spread. The proliferation of false information severely undermines trust in democratic institutions, processes and cohesive societies.

GCS has been working and learning alongside international partners to take action against mis- and disinformation as well as supporting the new Government Information Cell established to counter Russian information operations. Through partnerships with government, multilateral organisations and civil society communicators, our ‘RESIST 2’ counter disinformation toolkit has been used to ensure we uphold the democratic values we hold dear.

As well as challenging others, we have to take responsibility for our own content and behaviour. Building and maintaining public confidence in government communications starts with us.

GCS Propriety and Values

The core values and behaviours required of all civil servants – integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality – are of enduring relevance and value. Citizens should be able to trust what they see and hear from official government channels. Any statement that comes from official government channels should be justified by the facts. It should be objective and explanatory, and not biased or polemical.

GCS members should feel confident in being able to push back if they are asked to do something in contravention of the Civil Service Code or the GCS Propriety Guidance. The guidance applies to all civil servants, and Ministers and Special Advisers have a duty under their codes of conduct to uphold the impartiality of civil servants. Directors of Communication are responsible to their Permanent Secretary and the Chief Executive of the Government Communication Service for ensuring their team is upholding the Code and Propriety Guidance.

New ethical challenges

AI has huge potential benefits in terms of being able to better target messages and personalising messaging to persuade people to take action. The question for GCS is not whether or not we should use AI. We will have no choice other than to do so if we wish to use paid communications to provide public information, or encourage positive behaviours in future.

However, the use of AI in communication raises ethical questions about privacy, non-discrimination, self-determination, and fairness. The GCS approach to the application of AI in marketing to date has been guided by strict adherence to the latest data protection guidance and measured against the Government’s Data Ethics Framework. In order to maintain public trust, we will need to make sure that our use of AI continues to be transparent and open to scrutiny. Data must only be used with consent. We must comply with the latest advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office, our public sector equality duty, and other relevant legislation.

We will review and revise GCS Propriety Guidance to include guidance on the application of AI and make sure this is reflected in GCS training. We will continue to develop our AI capability in-house to build more sophisticated solutions that can genuinely provide social and environmental benefit while adhering to the highest standards of data protection, ethics and transparency

Last updated 11 May 2022