Best practices in communications for public servants


The business of government has changed dramatically in recent years. So it’s no surprise that the transformation of government operations, coupled with an unprecedented rise in citizen expectations have created extraordinary demands on government communicators.

Here’s a round up of the top 8 best practices in government communications to emerge – many originate from the United Kingdom and are now flourishing in the Canadian context:

One Government, One Voice. Increasingly, governments and private sector organizations are recognizing that in a crowded, noisy marketplace, it’s vital to streamline communications to establish a strong identity and message. The model is codified in the Government of Canada’s recently updated Policy on Communications and Federal Identity and is adopted by governments world-wide.

Audience-Centric Communications. The concept of audience-centric communications has long been established as a best practice aimed at ensuring that the communications experience (i.e. message and channel) are oriented to the needs of the audience member, as opposed to the organization. Applied in a government context, this translates to citizen-centric communications, a model in which citizens can have a user-driven experience of accessing information. For example, rather than sifting through several departmental websites, a citizen can access information that is relevant based on self-identified need, such as resources for seniors or information for small businesses.

Agile Communications Teams. In recent years, the organizational structures of communications teams have transformed dramatically, in response to the extraordinary changes in the media landscape. In an environment of digital communications and an unprecedented integration of channels, traditional siloed structures have been replaced with what’s often referred to as a “trading floor” model, in which employees are deployed based on ability and area of interest, as opposed to rigid role structure.

The approach to organizational design is highly responsive and flexible, which is increasingly necessary as the communications discipline evolves rapidly in response to audiences’ changing and rising expectations. This is what Deloitte University Press describes as “a network of teams” with a high degree of empowerment, strong communication, and rapid information flow.

Digital and Open by Default. The Government of Canada is adopting best practices informed by ground breaking strategic communications planning work conducted by the UK Government, now internationally recognized as pioneers in effective public sector communications practices. A core principle of the model is the notion of “digital by default”, that is, designing communications tactics and approaches around the web as the core channel, rather than as an afterthought. It’s the difference between issuing a news release and then posting it online and developing a communications approach across the web, social media and off-line communication channels such as events and speeches in an integrated fashion.

Connected to “digital by default” is the focus on a government that is “open by default”. This basic premise has been adopted by the Government of Canada (as formalized in the Ministerial Mandate Letters). This philosophy calls for a first assumption that information will be made publicly available in the interest of transparency, in contrast to historic approaches in which openness was an exception by conscious choice in particular circumstances.

Focus on Dialogue and Engagement. Increasingly, there is a shift in communications approaches among public sector organizations. In particular, moving away from the traditional “tell and sell” model, to a more participatory and inclusive approach of fostering meaningful two-way communication and engagement. This increased focus on dialogue and engagement is in part a result of the impact of social media in shifting expectations of communication as a conversation. Additionally, governments are now recognizing that trust is the necessary pre-condition of effective communication – and it requires new approaches to dialogue, engagement and openness. Governments in Canada (including provincial governments) and abroad are shifting toward using techniques such as citizen panels, Google Hangouts, online deliberative dialogue and open houses as foundational elements of a communications model designed to elevate relevance and trust through engagement.

Driven by Storylines. One of the most significant trends in strategic communications and marketing in public sector institutions is the use of content strategy. This approach entails identifying priority themes and narratives that are brought to life through a concerted exercise of storytelling. It stems from the recognition that to communicate everything is to communicate nothing – truly breakthrough communication results require a judicious focus on being economical with words and ideas. This model is focused on “sense making” opportunities, in which a deliberate effort is made to create meaning for citizens by clustering various discrete elements of information into a coherent story. Storytelling has been identified as a leading trend in government communications.

Delivery. Governments are now adopting “Delivery” methodologies in order to ensure effective execution of priorities. Coined by Michael Barber, the “Delivery” model (also known as “Deliverology”) aims to embed an agile performance management system in large-scale organizations. The approach was established in the UK Government context and has recently been introduced by the Government of Canada’s Privy Council Office. The focus is on spearheading government priorities through a repeatable cycle of identifying priorities, establishing accountabilities and metrics, monitoring operational performance, and reporting on progress. The Delivery approach to government operations relies heavily on strategic communications as a key enabler, particularly with respect to operational and team communication

Results-Based. The underpinning of modern government operations is results-based management. From the United Nations to leading countries around the world and provincial/territorial and municipal governments in Canada, management by metrics has become the undisputed gold standard of operational delivery. This approach requires active, strategic involvement of communications on several levels: establishing the principle and communicating measurable goals, sharing success stories as well as lessons learned, and creating systems and processes for identifying, tracking and reporting on metrics.

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