Features: October 8th, 2010

By Tom Raggett

The public sector is increasingly seeking to engage with its customers through digital channels. The author looks at the current use of digital engagement in UK government Departments and suggests some pragmatic steps to build on the good work that has already been done.

The public sector is required to serve the entire UK population at home and overseas and to work on issues that may have measureable impact ranging from days to decades. This leads to a pressure on investment and resources available to spread across the wide range of digital channels as well as a tension between the immediacy of digital engagement and the necessarily measured pace of policy development and service delivery.

This report aims to outline the current state of digital engagement in the UK public sector, look at the key issues being tackled and point to some solutions drawn from public and private sector good practice.

The research has found that the public sector is well placed to address these issues, and has already had some notable successes in digital engagement. These should be celebrated and used as learning items.

The major research element of this report is drawn from interviews with the Directors of
Communications of 20 major government Departments, asking them three core questions in a semi-structured interview format:

• What does digital engagement mean for you and your organisation?
• How are you structured to deliver digital engagement?
• What is the near future for digital engagement?

The Directors of Communications were chosen because their core activities are among
the most directly affected by the rise of digital and they have a view of most activities taking place within a Department including transactional delivery and policy developments.

There was broad agreement between interviewees that while significant progress had already been made, there is plenty more room for improvement in the way government undertakes digital engagement as services and good practice develop. The communications leads agreed that they should keep up the pace of digital and culture change, but stressed that digital engagement can only exist in support of the overall objectives of their department.

Current status of digital engagement in government

All Departments are using some form of digital engagement with their stakeholders and wider public. In general, these activities are well targeted and effective.
Departments see digital engagement grouped as follows:

• Information – this is the area where Departments have made most progress in terms of web sites and use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

• Marketing – most new initiatives are now developed with some form of digital channel at their core.

• Engagement – Departments are starting to move beyond broadcast into true multi-way collaboration with stakeholders, but it is very early in this process.

• Providing services – all Departments have some form of digital service delivery (even if it is only providing data and information online). This report avoids discussing these activities, as they are very well covered elsewhere.

• Cost reduction – Departments look to digital engagement to provide cost savings compared with non-digital engagement options.

The ability of all staff to use digital channels and the growing stakeholder demand for these channels is causing tension within Departments as they work to update pre-digital processes which do not work as effectively in the digital era.

Departments are sensibly not at the very forefront of digital engagement, but they are certainly keeping an eye on key developments and are carrying out experiments that can scale up if successful. The pace of change in terms of new channels and changing patterns of stakeholder demand is already rapid and is increasing in speed. This can cause further tensions, as many stakeholders’ contact with Departments can be sporadic, making it difficult to know how and where best to engage with them.

Engaging with stakeholders in their own spaces is in itself creating a whole
new set of learning opportunities for civil servants. This feeling of being in a state of perpetual review and redevelopment is uncomfortable, but Departments are learning to work in an agile manner through small incremental changes as well as through more traditional large-scale engagement initiatives.

Econsultancy recommendations

The research generated six key recommendations for Departments. These are practical steps that Departments can take now to make the use of digital engagement more widespread and less challenging. Econsultancy?s recommendations are based on evidence from the research and clear good practice in the public and private sectors and are discussed in more depth in the report.

1. Promote senior level digital communications – the most advanced Departments have digital savvy leaders who understand and use the new engagement options. There are considerable benefits in peer-to-peer experience sharing and learning in this area.

2. Better core stakeholder segmentation – Departments need to coordinate stakeholder
engagement across the whole Department as well as within communications teams.

3. Message, audience, mechanism should drive use of digital channels – use of digital channels should be considered and outcome-driven; not led by technology or novelty.

4. The eCommunications team should lead on digital engagement – eCommunications teams have a good understanding of the emerging digital channels and a view of all of a Department’s activities.’

5. Increase use of digital assets – Departments should consider engagement options such as widgets, applications and interactive media as an offering themselves, rather than as a
translation of offline materials.

6. Ensure all staff have access to digital channels as needed for their work – infrastructure and policy constraints prevent most Departmental staff from accessing new digital channels. This prevents Departments benefiting fully from the digital engagement opportunities.

Big questions

There are a number of questions that emerge when considering digital engagement that do not lead to clear recommendations.

• When should the “digital” department disappear as a separate entity?
• How to avoid creating more work through digital engagement?
• How do you create and maintain an emotional connection with an organisation?
• When is a channel important enough to use?
• How do Departments find, follow and value multi-way engagement?

Departmental leaders should consider these questions and begin forming a view on how they will address them.

After reading this report

Departments should read this report and then consider implementing the recommendations and also explore the big questions in a structured manner throughout the organization.

There is further guidance available from the Cabinet Office and Central Office of Information (COI) as well as the case studies and references in the end notes in this report.

A fuller version of the report is available here.