When we talk about digital engagement it’s often in terms of tools and execution. What content management systems are we using? How are we monitoring the impact of our blogs - Hootsuite or Sprout Social? At GDS, new digital engagement leads are evaluated on their existing ‘hard’ skills: do they know how to create a content plan? How are their presentation skills?
These things are all important. But, when implementing a digital engagement plan, is your ability to populate an OASIS model or activity grid more relevant than your ability to pay attention and spot good engagement opportunities? I don’t believe it is.
Equally valuable are ‘soft’ skills. Curiosity, flexibility, listening, asking timely questions, and being mindful of the bigger picture. These skills are the foundation of an effective digital engagement team: they can help us to bring the narrative of a programme or service to life and find the stories that our audiences want to hear - and talk - about.
You need hard skills, but they will change as the tools available to you change. Developing soft skills enhances how you approach digital engagement in the short term and will stick with you in future too.
Work on your soft skills
Some people are naturally good at negotiation, being empathetic and coaxing stories out of people. For others (and I include myself in this group) it’s a learned thing. Whichever is the case with you, you should practice soft skills if you want to get better.
Practice how to ask questions. Ask more questions, including the hard ones (two classics: ‘well, why did you decide to do it that way?’ and ‘hey, why’s this taking so long?’). There’s an art to it and asking better questions means you’ll be able to uncover stories that might not have spotted otherwise. Sometimes this is hard. Asking lots questions can seem counterintuitive - there’s a fear you’ll look silly or people will think you're wasting time.
I currently work on GOV.UK Verify. As with most digital teams across government, my colleagues are super smart. Talented policy makers, technically brilliant developers, privacy and security experts. All sorts of people with all sorts of knowledge in areas I know little about. It’s their job to have a deep understanding of their specialist area. It’s my job to help them articulate what they’re doing in a clear and engaging way that meets the needs of our audience. They’re used to me asking questions.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit I’m fairly risk averse. I always want to make sure we’re sharing the right news with the right people at the right time. Thus, my approach to questioning is cautious. I like asking open-ended, encouraging questions that come with a dose of constructive skepticism. This helps me understand what we should (and should not) be communicating.
A range of audiences read what we publish on our digital channels and at GDS the things we build are for everyone. Coming to a situation with a willingness to ask questions gets you thinking about the work teams are doing in the same way as a user without any preconceptions might. As a result, you can communicate that work with greater clarity.
Listening is not something that just happens: you need to make a decision to actually understand what someone is telling you and learn from it. A digital engagement lead can really benefit from giving their undivided attention to what’s in front of them.
After more than two years at GDS, I still rely on my notebook in conversations and meetings, using it to jot down dates, good ideas, and possible stories. However, taking notes should not distract you from listening intently to what’s being said. As I’ve got better at listening, I’m using my notebook less and less - it’s now more of a memory aid than a distraction.
In order to put the notebook to one side, I’ve had to start listening well: focussing on the essential message rather than the detail; repeating what my team members are telling me using their own words, and interrogating what they’re saying without judging them (and without interrupting). I’ve been surprised by what I’ve learnt and people’s willingness to share information with me because they feel acknowledged. Perhaps with further practice, I’ll be notebook free.
A large part of digital engagement in government is about mediation. You might work with a delivery team that works in cycles, inside a business with a set of defined targets, for ministers who have a portfolio of different priorities. You have to assess situations and be responsive to the pressures other parties may be experiencing.
Clearing messages, getting agreement on a blog post or agreeing a media approach always will involve a certain amount of negotiation and patience. I try to start discussions about all these things in a way that invites feedback and be open to resolving issues in ways I may not have considered.
To reach a good outcome, it helps to state the purpose of any digital engagement activity and remind all parties of their shared goals - often bringing everyone back to the idea of user needs and presenting evidence (thank you, hard skills!). When mediating, be ready to compromise and identify alternatives. In other words, be adaptable yet firm and always be prepared to iterate your plans based on feedback.
Good digital engagement is a shared responsibility. Take the time to see where your colleagues might need help. If you see something you know can help with, offer to do so. There’s no reason not to. We’re all working together on the shared goal of transforming the relationship between citizen and state.
Part of my job involves commissioning blog posts from team members. Many are great writers, familiar with the GDS house style and keen to share their experiences or news of GOV.UK Verify’s progress. Others need a helping hand. I find that helping people is a good way to learn: set aside time to coach contributors through the writing process. Working together to deliver a tricky message in straightforward terms can really bring a team together. In fact, Amy’s written a great piece over on the main GDS blog about how teams can collaborate in this way.
Finally, pick up the telephone
I put this one last on my list of soft skills to nurture because I’m definitely guilty of sending an email or striking up a conversation on Slack when a telephone call, although perhaps more painful, would have been more effective.
I’m stating the obvious but having a conversation with someone is often the best way to understand their point of view or experience and, when an issue crops up, can be the quickest route to resolution. This is particularly important when you’re working on a cross-government programme involving lots of different departments and press offices. Invite calls, take calls, leave voicemails. Just pick up your telephone - it’s not as intrusive as you think.
The more I practice my soft skills, the better I think I get. When combined with hard skills and a project or programme of work you care about, they really can make an impact.