Governments should follow private sector when it comes to communications, comms expert says

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday April 13, 2021

If done properly, communication is the easiest way to get people to change their behaviour as part of policy implementation. (Image: Adobe/tashatuvango)

Governments could more effectively utilise communications to deliver policies by involving communicators early on in the policy development process, according to WPP’s director of capability Sean Larkins.

Larkins, who has previously worked for the Prime Minister’s Office in the UK, notes that there are four key levers of policy: taxation, legislation, regulation and communication.

If done properly, communication is the easiest way to get people to change their behaviour as part of policy implementation, he says.

“Legislation, regulation and taxation tend to be really really unpopular with the public because — despite being very good over the course of the last year with all of the restrictions that have been placed on us — generally, we don’t like being told what to do as adults,” Larkins tells The Mandarin.

“And legislation, regulation and taxation are really difficult to get right. They take a lot of political will, they take a lot of time to get through Parliament. Quite often, communication is a much easier way to get people involved — but that’s not to say that we would communicate in isolation.”

The challenge for policymakers, communicators and behavioural experts is defining the role that behavioural communication plays alongside the other levers.

Governments often fail to fully grasp the power of communication, and treat it as an afterthought rather than considering it during the early stages of policymaking, Larkins says.

“Over the last couple of years I’ve worked in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and all too often people see communications as this thing that you bring in at the end of the process,” he says.

“[They’ll say], ‘We’ve done all of the intelligent work, and we’ve come up with a great policy. Now if you’re in communications, just go and sell it to Joe Public.’ But it doesn’t necessarily work that way. And also it’s a misunderstanding of what communication can do.”

Further, simply aiming to raise awareness of a policy will not support its delivery.

“The vast majority of issues that governments deal with in terms of communication are not actually about telling people, they’re about getting people to change their behaviour in some way,” Larkins explains.

“We want people to stop doing something that’s bad for them, like smoking. We want them to start doing something like healthy eating, and driving more safely. Or even to continue to do something, such as paying their taxes on time every year. So the vast majority of what governments need to communicate is actually a form of behavioural intervention, and governments don’t necessarily recognise that.”

Larkins notes that the past year has shown that it’s very difficult to change people’s behaviour quickly when communications are not closely aligned with policy, and “when you have a structure of government that keeps policymakers in one part of government and communicators in another”.

“Quite often policymakers are seen as the kind of pointy headed people, you know they’re the intelligent people, they’re the clever people. And communicators are [seen as] the people who couldn’t make it in any other profession,” he says.

“So there’s quite often a slightly patronising relationship between policy and communications. And so communicators are quite often excluded from those policy decisions … and that creates problems.”

During COVID-19, for example, one problem that emerged was mixed messages from government. Such muddled messages can damage public trust, leaving citizens feeling “let down” and confused, and could lead to them to “soak up misinformation” on social media. Once this occurs, it becomes very difficult for governments to get people to change their behaviours.

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Larkins says governments must take note of the private sector’s approach to communication and integrate strategy and campaign planning with policy development.

“The policy development cycle is broadly linear. We come up with a problem, we start to research how we might develop that, we develop our policy, and then we throw it to the communicators when it’s at the implementation stage. So we need to integrate behavioural science and communication and integrated strategy campaigning into that policy development process,” he says.

“And that’s something that happens automatically within the private sector. There isn’t a single private sector company that I know of that would create a product without thinking who its target market was and how they’d sell it.”

That integration also demands a citizen-centric approach to policy development, which Larkins says the private sector does “instinctively”.

“Still too many policies are developed from the point of view of what’s right for government, what’s easy for government rather than what works best for citizens. A lot of government services are structured around what’s easy for us to deliver rather than what makes more sense for the citizen. There is a frustration I think again around how communication tends to be driven not by the audience need, but by where the budget sits.”

Larkins will discuss the role of communication in public policy development at a conference hosted by The Mandarin in partnership with the WPP Government and Public Sector Practice next week. Register for the event here.

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