If you work in comms you've probably said this a few times: I wish they’d come to me sooner to discuss the comms for this! To do a great job, communications people need a seat at the table. But when you're building, releasing and delivering new services in an agile working environment, ongoing engagement is essential. You’ll need a spot at the daily stand-ups and to be able to adapt your comms plans continually to meet service and user needs.
We’re all familiar with the discussion about moving from broadcast to dialogue, and direct engagement through multiple channels. Through online customer support tools like Zendesk, blogging, social media, and monitoring tools such as Brandwatch, you can gain valuable insights and engage with the public, suppliers, media, specialist groups and others - but the digital transformation of services in government can change the role of comms in other ways too.
Since I joined GDS I’ve worked as Digital Engagement Lead on the digital transformation programme, working across 25 exemplars and 8 departments, GOV.UK Verify as we moved into public beta, and I've spent time in an agency that was delivering a new digital service.
Here are a few insights into these different ways of working, and some tips I have collected along the way.
Working in agile: communicating as you build
We build and release digital services iteratively, using agile working practices. So comms needs to support this way of working and keep up. It’s quite usual in many organisations for comms teams to be brought in when something is going live or being launched - where press releases and media plans are required. When you’re rolling out a new digital service, that doesn’t work. You need to be part of the team so you really understand each iteration, fix or release. You're part of the journey and will make a big contribution to it.
Keep your audiences up-to-date by regular blogging. That way anyone can find out where we are in terms of development and roll out; can understand the iterations and what informed them; and you’re building a valuable resource to share with other departments - or anyone else delivering similar services.
Telling the story with or without big bang media launches
Your role might include explaining the changes from each sprint - sharing progress and learning as the service is built and tested - and interpreting some tech speak. It will also involve internal comms, probably cross departmental engagement and most definitely a lot of influencing.
For example, you need to make sure press office colleagues understand that with iterative development in the open, a big bang media launch might be a bit tricky. Blogging doesn’t dilute the impact of a new service in terms of media coverage: if there is a story, you’ll probably get more out of it by narrating the build, introducing case studies and examples, and building an ongoing relationship with interested journalists.
For most services there’s a number of interesting angles for different audience groups - tech journalists and specialist trade press for example will find different points of interest from the same information. The carer’s allowance exemplar produced many positive stories from users and from the people working on the service, reconnecting with their users through user research, and learning new ways of working. There are often some really interesting insights and stories about overcoming obstacles, trying something new, sharing code, or opening up a number of new opportunities you might not have thought of.
Agile Comms: service led, users first
Your communications need to be service led. That means a wonderful grid and timeline might go out the window once or twice. You’ll still need them - but be prepared to iterate! You need to convince people that being flexible and talking about things when they’re done - ‘showing the thing’ is best. But show them that you’ve got it covered and are well prepared for when things shift.
Ultimately, service build is user led - and if in testing, it’s not working for your users, the service will be changed. Dealing with a confused audience after over-promising pre launch is not where you or your colleagues want to be.
Integrated comms experience desirable; planning - essential
If you thought this way of working means less to do for comms - it’s quite the opposite! Whatever the service requires, there’s lots of comms planning to do. To really excel you need a good understanding of how to use digital and more traditional channels.
Some services will have a very engaged stakeholder audience where moving something to digital is going to have a big impact on them. You will need to make sure you’re engaging with them along the journey. You’ll need to think about any changes users need to be aware of that might affect how they use the service, at what time, or what they might need to do in order to use it. For example they might not even think about a service they use annually until it’s about the time of year they usually do it, so you need to plan for this.
For some of the bigger services, this might be in the form of a campaign where you need to work with the media, stakeholders, use digital channels, direct mail, and even TV, like the Individual Electoral Registration service which launched last year. While it provided a simpler process for people to register to vote, they needed to know about the changes, the deadline, and what to do.
Engaging in delivery
The digital engagement lead needs to be a part of the delivery team to be able to identify the best timing and most effective ways to communicate about the service. Working as part of a multi-disciplinary team means you acquire a thorough knowledge of the service and are on the pulse for service updates, downtimes and changes.
Remember fundamentally, it’s all about relationships. Colleagues, user groups, stakeholders, media - regular and clear communication helps keep people in the loop and keeps those relationships active. Throughout the delivery journey, they will need you and you will need them.