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'I would hope agencies see us as a more businesslike place' – Whitehall PR supremo Alex Aiken on changing nature of government comms

The UK government this week unveiled its 2014/15 Communications Plan, which sets out its marcomms priorities and budgets for the year ahead. Jane Wilson sought out government comms chief Alex Aiken to find out what it all means for the industry.

Alex Aiken: Whitehall's PR supremo

There was a lot of love in the Churchill Room of the HMRC building in London as Alex Aiken, executive director of government communications, led us through an overview of the new Communications Plan this week. Compared to last year’s presentation, which was ambitious but as yet untested, there is now enough evidence to show that Aiken’s team has delivered on most of the objectives he set out a year ago.

While clearly a team effort, Aiken is the one who has galvanised Whitehall’s communicators around common purpose and goals. No surprise from such a seasoned political campaigner. From 1995 to 2000, he led first the Conservative Party’s press office and then its campaign unit. This was followed by 12 years as communications director for Westminster Council, where he made his name as a respected and influential public sector PR chief. Since 2013, Aiken has been in his current role at the heart of government and working at a fierce pace to make communications more professional, collaborative, efficient and effective.

The Drum caught up with Aiken to discuss the highlights of the last 12 months and the key elements of the 2014/2015 plan.

Broadly, how has the government communications landscape evolved in the last 12 months?

First and foremost we have become more professional with an emphasis on development. 2,000 people have completed Aspire [internal training programme] courses. We have placed a much stronger focus on evaluation of impact and we are more collegiate and collaborative in our approach.

We also now have the Government Communications Service (GCS). This is a major step forward and the difference it makes is partly evinced by the Government Communications Plan. In the plan, 240 communications activities have been captured, prioritised and focused on three priorities for government communicators – building economic confidence; promoting a fair society and maintaining Britain’s influence in the world.

Have you achieved the objectives you set out a year ago?

Broadly yes. The first phase of the reform of government communications is largely complete. We will move on to second phases in late 2014.

Better evaluation was a key objective last year. How have you measured campaign performance?

Before, there were two departments that routinely measured their work. The others, we said, have to have measurement and evaluation in place. Now, 26 out of 33 major departments and agencies have performance hubs. Our aim is to have this in place in 100 per cent of departments and agencies quite soon.

How have you ensured that professional development is embedded?

The GCS now has around 3,000 members and each person has to do four pieces of professional development around core communication skills. They can’t be promoted or even make a sideways move unless they have completed their CPD.

Has there been a culture change in government communications teams?

Culture and behaviour have certainly changed. Our communication exchange events – where we invite departments to give a ‘masterclass on the thing that you’re good at’ – have around 600 attendees. There is much more collaboration with cross-government groups on regional communication for example. Directors of communications (DoCs) are working together and we have a new formalised governance structure in the shape of the government communication board, led by Francis Maude MP with David Laws MP and Matthew Hancock MP.

Which do you think have been the standout government campaigns of the last year?

The campaign to build confidence in small businesses is a success and we can look to number of start-ups as evidence. The GREAT campaign set out to demonstrate that we are a nation to visit, invest in, trade with and study in. It has delivered a confirmed economic return £500m in its first year and is delivering a further £600-£800 in 2013/2014. The #buildingbritain infrastructure campaign and the work done around the Philippines typhoon are other examples of excellent inter-departmental working.

What do you see as the main challenges for the coming year?

We are committed to being 10 per cent more efficient year on year, improve planning and have greater collaboration. Our education challenge is to increase professional development and improve talent management. We have identified 37 communicators on a track towards director standard and are supporting them through our talent management programme.

Following last year’s controversial communications roster review, how are relationships with agencies?

We are keen to learn from agencies. We’ve received some very useful feedback and challenge from industry bodies on PR and marketing this year but the framework is working well. I would hope that agencies see us as a more businesslike place. We have a supplier meeting coming up in June.

Are you proposing any changes to procurement and use of agencies?

We continue to evaluate the impact of campaigns closely and this is the basis for understanding if the current structure is working. Evidence says that it is. We’re now coming to the end of the media buying tender process with the research process forthcoming. I’m happy to listen to the industry.

Are you making any new hires?

Yes, we are now advertising for a new cohort of digital natives to join government communications at information officer and assistant Information officer level.

What can industry do to support the plan or work with government communications?

There are many ways to be part of this. Be part of our peer network or be a capability reviewer, sign up to provide services, identify secondment opportunities, partner to deliver campaigns or join the Evaluation Council.

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At the launch, Aiken said he didn’t want a love in, but he is clearly proud of his achievements. When asked from the floor whether his systems have sufficient resilience to survive a change in administration, he answered: “I think this has been proofed for any government and any future government will be bequeathed a better system.”

I ended our interview by asking him what it has taken him personally to achieve these results. “Bloody hard work, being on your game and leadership.”

Jane Wilson is a communication and reputation consultant, a blogger for The Drum and a former chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations