Why communication of government policy is integral to policy-making itself

As is my wont, I read the Sunday Papers over the course of the following week – children, you know! Today I read an article by David Smith (surely a code name :)) it is here: http://tiny.cc/kdmLw

In it he speaks about a meeting in the Egyptian Hall, an annual happenstance between HM Treasury (HMT) and The BANKING world – with a smattering of Lord Mayor (I can feel the shuddering in the Clubs – sorry).

This article interested me just because it made sense of something I do not understand too much, banking, HMT and the Northern Rock debacle. (All I really know is that my weekly shop has gone up by at least 30 quid, and I am now being organic and ordering boxes from Abel and Cole (to save the world) and the rest from my local Co-Op). But I am putting this in italics because it is not the point… (please do not read any feminism or the opposite into this – we all need to eat)

What it was saying to me was: policy guys in government, you do the stuff you are good at – blue sky/green field thinking, with officials enabling. Us guys in banking, we can make this a reality for you, what are you saying?

There is a mis-match somewhere. I have worked with the people in HMT, and they are scarily brilliant, as scarily brilliant as you would expect to find in any corporate bank or organisation (and often they are from there in the first place). I have never worked with the banking people, but I know enough of them socially and I get the size of the divide between the two.

What is wrong?

The method of communication.

I can see the like-minded amongst you asking me why I think this, and I can see the professional bankers and HMT officials and policy people asking me if I need a coffee and a lie-down. Bear with me, it is not profound, it is just a pondering…

At the moment, policy officials sit relatively closely to the Press Offices, then marketing, and then e-communication teams.

The website – the bit I have traditionally dealt with in government – is far removed from policy officials, except for approval of published content. Quite right too… websites don’t matter, they are the libraries of our youth, Google the librarian. (Albeit a more sexy version).

It is so hard to write this post without sounding really wanky, OK, so forgive me in advance.

Social media/Web 2.0 (whatever you want to call it) – has given true meaning to the phrase ‘information is power’. It has given the tools to those who make policy to talk with everyone – us – ‘users’ :)

Not only that – these tools can be managed, malleable, the risk minimalised, designed and delivered within hours to enable anything. (Big word that: anything). From emergency procedure/protocol to fire-fighting daily accusations.

The problem government – and possibly other big organisations – face, is where does this fit in? Forget ‘getting a blog’, or ‘let’s do it on a wiki’… this is bigger than all those things (fabulous though they are). It is a force that cannot be ignored, yet the implications are so big no one really wants to go there.

As ever, the web is holding up an even bigger magnifying glass to the master it is serving. The question is not about how to use the media; it is how to massage the organisation to meet the expectations of the media – the scrutiny it demands. (Let’s save that for another day).

If you choose to use the traditional methodology of keeping e-communication at arms length from policy, it is going to go wrong. This is a given, the chinese whispers game demonstrates how easy it is to get a message wrong once delivered through a gazillion layers. And quite frankly it is a waste of everyone’s time.

I have never understood why e-comms sits so far away from policy, but it is legacy behaviour and will never change. However, the uptake of social media creates a whole new game – and I like it… (no-one is permitted to do a ‘Kenny’ leg-cross here).

There is a choice, let’s move this communication channel up to policy level, let’s sit in the room with the policy makers. It is where communication needs to be.

Turning back to “David Smith” (sorry if it is your real name) and his article. There would be no need to have this grand meeting, with misunderstandings of role and recriminations, if the original policy, the whole involvement of HMT, was transparent from the beginning. Not in a *spin* transparent way, but the whole development and integration of the policy was complicit in its inclusiveness. (Warned you)…

If communication, thereby assuming collaboration, had been there right from the beginning – why would there be a need for a meeting with bewildered officials and infuriated specialists? This meeting should be defunct – there is no reason for it to happen in this day and there is no excuse for the apparent bewilderment on both sides as to what the other has been up to (and circumspection as to why).

Not sure how to conclude this post, I never do… I don’t know the answer – I just see the problem and the route to resolution, I am just baffled as to how we can make this happen: but it is not hard, the people that know how to make this happen are already sitting in the public sector. Stand up :)

(Please don’t say ‘I have joined digital people’ – that is not enough)

8 responses

  1. Em,

    I know you said that you’re not sure of the answer – but perhaps you have some ideas on how we can enhance collaboration in the public sector? We have to try and test ‘ideas’ to keep moving forward.

  2. Pingback: Digital Pioneers vs Digital People « extended reach

  3. Jeremy and Justin, I will have a think – basically I am saying that these collaboration tools, if used in government, need to be used by the policy units – with experts working alongside the policy experts. But that is not all of the answer either…

  4. For it to work, marketing should sit above the press offices like it does in any proper business, but of course that wont work in government because of the obsession with spin.

    It must be very frustrating to try to operate like this and fully explains the £30 increase in your weekly drinks bill. ;O)

  5. Cor, John, you commenting on a post about this stuff? But you are being a bit damning with your ‘obsession with spin’ – I have worked in quite a few departments for a variety of Ministers, and have only come across the ‘spin’ thing in one. And actually that was spinning to colleagues not from within the department to the ‘citizens’. Probably what happens in most organisations whether public or private.

    Next time you are getting the drinks

  6. Emma

    As well as the internet helping people to communicate, some of the Northern Rock story has its foundations in good old fashioned human behaviours.

    Apparently the FSA employees simply did not like the thought of going to Newcastle, where they might have damaged their sharp suits. As a result they were disconnected, unaware of the real scale of the lending frenzy, because they were not there in person.

    So the internet can, and will, not help everything. The FSA no doubt relied on e-mail and maybe even a VC or 2 with Northern Rock.

    So if HM Treasury clever people and all the others can talk to one another, perhaps they would make more progress. I just think the talk has to be more than digital alone…….

  7. Alex, thank you for giving m a right kick up the a*se… you are right, so right. face to face should never, will never, be replaced with digital dialogue. Quite right.

    In defence of myself, although I was being very one-eyed when I wrote this – what I was saying is that digital comms should happen right at the beginning, at development of policy stage: true democracy using digital tools. If that happened then these F2F meetings would not be so bewildering for all concerned.

    But you are right

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