THE LEADERS' REPORT

Challenges

Purpose of government communication

Respondents to The Leaders' Report identify three differing purposes for government communication functions. Some use it to protect open, political discourse and dialogue. Some use it as a tool to help deliver government policy. Some countries use government communication to support politicians and their political position.

Regardless of the purpose, the majority of respondents focus on protecting and enhancing their government's reputation. Around a third engage and consult with citizens.

Communication expenditure

While there is clarity of purpose in most government communication teams, it is harder to identify clarity around budgets and spend:

  • Some countries do not define what 'communication' is, making direct comparisons on spend unhelpful
  • Some government communication functions control spend, some monitor spend, and some have no control over spend. Many senior communication leaders do not have access to accurate figures on communication budgets
  • Some communication spend is held within policy and programme budgets. Spending decisions may be made by policymakers rather then communicators.

However, available information on trends in government media expenditure in a range of countries in Europe, North America, South Asia and Australasia show that:

  • The average spend on communication per head per annum by the governments studied varies widely and there is little consistency in approach to budgeting or spending1
  • According to respondents, the majority of government communication spend remains focused on traditional channels, with spend on newspapers, radio and television accounting for between 74% and 97% of media spend
  • Unsurprisingly, spend on print tends to decrease as spend on digital increases
  • Spend on government communication tends to fall when countries introduce centralised systems for monitoring and co-ordinating communication spending, and when budget is directly linked to evaluation models.

1GroupM Ad Categories 2016 and desk research from publically available government sources

Overarching context

Despite wide differences in purpose and spend, The Leaders' Report identifies a highdegree ofcommonality in the context of communication leaders across continents and governance models saythey are working in – even if the factors leading to them vary from country to country. Theiroverarching belief is that:

  • There has never been a more challenging time for government communication
  • Communication is poorly understood and under-utilised within government
  • Sharing of best practice and expertise across countries is largely absent.

Participants acknowledge that governments – and by direct implication government communicators – face almost unprecedented difficulties. They define these as:

  • A significant decline in trust in government
  • The advent and constant development of digital technologies
  • Shifting and complex demographics

These factors are seen as substantial barriers to the impact and effectiveness of government communication. They are also seen as interconnected. Senior communication leaders acknowledge that:

  • The internet has loosened governments' historical and collective 'grip' on trust. It has transformed the role that governments previously had as providers of information
  • Social media has created an echo chamber of information that can filter out opposing views and commentary. It has created a sense that all information is 'free' and equal
  • Citizens find it increasingly easy to communicate with each other, helping once-marginalised groups create vocal and powerful social organisations
  • While technology has offered governments many more channels through which to engage with those they govern, that same technology has fractured audiences. It is enabling misinformation to be corroborated by anonymous users and politicians alike, and at ever increasing speeds.

An overlooked asset

The research identifies that government communication is overlooked and underused as a strategic tool for policy delivery. The majority of communication leaders believe their profession is:

  • Regarded as a 'shared service' function
  • Poorly integrated into wider government structures
  • Tasked with information dissemination, rather than supporting policy development, service delivery, and citizen engagement
  • Primarily tactical and reactive
  • Too often excluded from discussions around policy development.

Some policy colleagues refer to communication as 'the car wash'. The analysts and economists that drive and draft the budget text are doing the important work. Then at the end of the day, they send us their product and it goes through the car wash. We'll give it a polish and package it up but, you know, not much more than that. There's still a perception... that communication is a tail-end process and that government can probably do without it.
Communication Leader, North America

Some respondents also report that their function is actively marginalised and increasingly bypassed by politicians. This should be a cause for serious concern. Alongside control, incentives and design, influence (through communication) is one of government's four most powerful levers of policy delivery. Yet our research shows that it is not fulfilling its potential.

Underinvestment in capability

While 57% of our respondents are educated to Masters level or higher, our research suggests that many may be poorly equipped for the challenges that face them. More than a third receive fewer than two days communication training each year. Indeed 14% of respondents receive no communication training at all.

Why communication matters

The principle role of government, on behalf of citizens, is to make policies that help society progress. As such, government communication must enable the exchange of views, wants and needs. The more effort a government puts into communication, the more it clarifies its purpose. And the clearer its purpose, the more effective it is likely to be.

While communication is no replacement for poor policy, it does have a profound impact on its development and delivery. This is in part due to the relationship between policy delivery and trust, and the relationship between trust and communication. A high level of trust in government:

  • Influences positive behaviours, such as eating healthily
  • Encourages consumption, vital in an era of slow growth and financial uncertainty
  • Leads to a faster response from citizens in a time of crisis or danger.2

Respondents to this research echo findings from the World Economic Forum3 that suggest a lack of proper communication is also influencing an increasing movement towards populism, radicalisation and extremism. When people feel ignored, unheard and unrepresented, they turn to alternative sources of information. If governments do not communicate with citizens properly, citizens will simply go elsewhere for information.

2 OECD Trust in government http://www.oecd.org/gov/trust-in-government.htm

3 WEF https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/06/10-ways-to-target-violent-extremism/

Government communication is focused on informing, advocating/persuading, and engaging citizens. The ability to "push out" information is necessary, albeit deeply insufficient. The willingness and ability to speak with citizens must be coupled with a willingness and ability to listen to them, incorporate their needs and preferences into the policy process, and engage local patterns of influence and trusted sources of information.
Communication Leader, Multilateral Organisation

The rise of populism is important to note, and not without irony. Respondents acknowledge that citizens are perhaps more powerful now than ever before: they have almost unlimited access to information. They can broadcast their opinions widely (regardless of accuracy). They can garner support on issues from likeminded individuals faster than the speed at which even the nimblest administration can respond. They have more up-to-date tech than most governments.

But at the same time, our respondents suggest that societies have entered an age of insecurity. Just as citizens have become more powerful, they have also become more fearful. Respondents to The Leaders' Report believe that the public feels more apprehensive today than perhaps at any time since the end of the Cold War. The global financial crisis, the danger of terrorism, the fear of immigration and perceived erosion of national identity, the threat of unemployment and insecure employment, the escalating costs of housing have, in many countries, served only to highlight the limits of democratic governments in meeting rising public expectations – and the potential attraction of populist politicians offering simplistic solutions.

So, how and why governments need to communicate has changed – but communication structures and skills have not. Governments need to recognise the limitations of carrying on communicating as many do today – broadcasting too many issues at the public with insufficient thought given to overarching priority, strategy and targeting.

A note of caution

Throughout The Leaders' Report we emphasise the importance of governments listening and responding. However, our research has highlighted two important caveats.

First, respondents believe that government relationships with the media have become more combative as the size of traditional media has shrunk and the fight for audiences has become more competitive. That increases the importance of governments finding active voices in civil society to help disseminate their message.

The bar for what constitutes a story has been lowered and journalists working in the media don't have the experience and skills to make the kind of judgement calls they used to. Most stories are framed as a conflict between right and wrong or good and bad. The issues we communicate are rarely this black and white.
Communication Leader, Australasia

Second, the growth of social media has led to what some respondents termed "the shrinking of the centre". Groups can establish themselves effectively in opposition to government with very few resources. Such groups don't require the kind of checks and balances that governments need to go through before they can respond. Extreme views can appear more mainstream when algorithms amplify them and reflect them back to others with similar views.

"One can hold a minority opinion that will be seen to represent the majority because of the strong engagement and powerful occupation of the [online] space. It's like an interactive video game: because I am the hero, I decide what the story is." – Communication Leader, Western Europe

So as well as identifying who to communicate with, government communicators must also identify who to listen and respond to: governments must consider carefully how they respond to loud, but not necessarily representative, opinions.

Why we're here

Alongside the shared nature of the challenges faced by government communicators and the need for government communication to be used more strategically, a third commonality emerged from the research: an almostuniversal lack of conversation between communicators, yet a global thirst for more knowledge sharing and best practice.

The lack of sharing arises from a variety of factors:

  • For some, a perceived "dictatorship of urgency" means there is simply no time to spend on anything other than the day job
  • Other participants believe that local distinctions make their circumstances unique, rendering the idea of shared best practice obsolete.

However, the majority of respondents express a desire for a more global perspective and global forum which is at present lacking.

"Communication isn't easy. It is an art and a science that requires logic, discipline, sophisticated tools and, fortunately, is something that can be learned. It can be learned but this has to be done with methods, with discipline, and you need to learn from experts, from their knowledge and from their ideas to be able to communicate properly." – Communication Leader, South America

This final commonality serves to reinforce the motivation for producing The Leaders' Report: to provide a global overview of government communication and to act as a gateway for more shared, accessible conversations about where government communication is today and where it needs to be tomorrow. We hope this report will support the contribution communication needs to play in helping governments deliver their policy priorities and, ultimately, contribute to improving the public realm.

We return now to the five key issues that government communicators worldwide say they are facing.

One to watch: network with networks

The European Union's Club of Venice is an informal group of Europe's most senior and experienced government communications professionals. Founded in 1986, it meets several times each year to provide members with an opportunity to discuss issues of mutual interest, share experiences and best practice, and offer mutual support.

For more information, see: https://clubofvenice.wordpress.com