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All Things P: the new hub for engagement, communications

Welcome to All Things P. Named after The Wall Street Journal‘s famous technology blog All Things D, All Things P will bring to life the large world of government engagement and communications. Be it projects, programs, public affairs — or even little “p” politics — All Things P will give a daily fill of communication and engagement activities across the public sector.

In the internet world everyone has a megaphone. Be it a website or a social media application, people and organisations can — and do — communicate directly, without having their messages mediated by the media. For government agencies this provides a powerful opportunity to engage with citizens and stakeholders. This engagement lets officials reach out directly to citizens, but also to gather feedback and insights through consultations and campaigns. To listen directly to citizens and respond accordingly.

Equally important is the need to support the rapid digitalisation of services with clear, simple language, written to reflect the user experience — often very different, depending on the size of device and connectivity speeds.

Dr Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation, says digitalisation is changing people’s expectations:

“It’s changing what the public expects in the way they communicate with government. We are now expecting a much more immediate access, we are now expecting a much more authentic exchange of information.

“We have digital transformation, millions being spent on online services and digital delivery. But what we are not doing, which is where plain english becomes critical, is matching that system transformation by looking at the language and the way we are communicating.”

In the United Kingdom, the equivalent of the federal Digital Transformation Office — the Government Digital Service — developed a large-scale digital communications program to retrain thousands of traditional public relations/affairs officials for the modern era.

The zillions (my estimate) of PDFs sitting on Australian public sector websites, cluttered with thousands of words of bureaucratic verbiage, is a stark reminder just how little priority is given to clear, accessible communications.

And even those who should know better fall into the trap of jargon. Witness this from the DTO’s latest tender document:

The DTO is seeking information on:

  • Identity attribute verification including the capacity to access both the Document Verification Service (DVS) and other identity data sources
  • Authentication credential management (including cloud, mobile and hardware based solutions), including the capability to deliver adaptive or risk based authentication services
  • Trust broker solutions

which meets the Commonwealth’s requirements, objectives and outcomes in relation to them, are detailed in the RFI DTO-197 – Part 2 Statement of Requirement.

One wonders how many firms will bid for this work.

Reversing our inward culture

Some Australian government agencies have a strong outward demeanour, based around services and competitive service delivery. But for the vast majority, the reality is the overwhelming culture is an inward one, with little experience or capability beyond the narrow, and now outdated, public affairs function. Marketing remains a dirty word, let alone the practice of key activity, such as segmentation and personalisation. In the worst case, agencies default to their minister, hiding behind the fiction that the minister is the public voice of the agency.

Adding to the challenge are deeply ingrained legal cultures in many agencies — the regulators being the prime examples — leaving these often large organisations struggling to find a simple, authentic and fast-moving communications style. In the worst cases these regulators often seem like bureaucratic dinosaurs, rather than the agile outward organisations Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for.

[pullquote] “In the worst cases these regulators often seem like bureaucratic dinosaurs …” [/pullquote]

This has exposed government big time to the rapid rise in citizen empowerment. The inability of the political class to adapt has arguably fuelled large-scale discontentment with political leaders and parties across the globe. This has also infected trust in public administrators, with a sharp drop in the measured trust and authority of public officials.

At its worst this has made government appear simply naive and infantile — witness the $11 million Treasury spent on the Dr Karl intergenerational report campaign early last year. As we limp into an election with tax reform scuttled and the government embattled by its own proposed superannuation reforms, that campaign looks a very poor return for taxpayers.

Not all has been bad. In the last 12 months there has been rapid headway to clean up many websites — the once stolid Prime Minister and Cabinet portal today even has images on the home page, a first attempt at a visual hierarchy and even a structured engagement platform — for the new cities policy. It helps having the DTO in your portfolio!

Many of the states now have strong engagement portals — NSW’s Have Your Say probably being the best of them. And who can forget the illustrious Dumb Ways to Die campaign from Victoria’s Metro Trains?

Organisation-wide commitment

But the lesson from the non-government sector is that the practice of professional engagement, campaign development and marketing in the digital era takes real organisation-wide commitment.

Agencies must consciously choose whether to develop the capabilities and technologies needed to engage with users in a sophisticated, ongoing way. This user-centric thinking is deeply cultural and needs to be brought into the executive meetings of all agencies and departments. How many weekly top-level agency executive meetings meaningfully review their website metrics? And how many have, let alone measure, conversion goals?

All Things P recognises the need agencies have to rapidly develop their engagement and campaign management skills.

We are bringing together some of Australia’s best practitioners in the fields of communications, user and interface design, engagement, clear communications, marketing, campaign design, analytics, brand management, stakeholder management and modern public affairs management.

Their insights, from the practical to the strategic, will help build a strong community of practice around public sector engagement.

We aim to share the lessons of agencies from all jurisdictions — the good and not-so-good.

We are keen to hear about agency’s latest campaigns — be they multimillion-dollar above-the-line programs or simply an interesting Instagram post — that captures an audience’s attention.

If your agency wants to promote an engagement or campaign, let us know. Similarly, if you have lessons from your own practice you want to share, please tell us.

Tom Burton
The Mandarin publisher

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.