This post, by Stephen Hale of the Department of Health, originally appeared on his Health Conversations blog.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with some of the DH digital team, to talk about digital policy engagement, and how we would like to do it in an ideal world.
Over a couple of hours, powered by a carrier bag full of falafel from Lower Marsh, we shared experiences from some of the best things that we’d each worked on, and tried to identify what it was that made them work well.
Annelise talked about the sense of shared purpose she experienced when working on the NHS listening exercise, Claire talked about how satisfying it was to be so close to the evidence when working on healthcare associated infections, I talked about some of the things I remember from G20 comms at the FCO.
We all talked about pieces of work that we felt proud of, and the things about them made them so satisfying.
Our team, and our working practices, ought to be designed to support the things that help us do excellent and gratifying work. So I’ve been trying to distill some of the common things we talked about in order to help create the conditions in which we can routinely repeat them in our digital policy engagement work.
Here’s my summary of the common things that we identified.
Ideally we would always:
Start with a departmental objective. If you find you’re doing something that has nothing to do with a stated objective, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. This seems an obvious point, but I bet plenty of people find themselves working on peripheral social media stuff, wondering why nobody is thanking them for it. It should be easy enough to match digital work to important stuff. In DH we have a published corporate plan that sets out what the department is trying to do this year, as well as a clear set of priorities. Our most successful examples of digital engagement tend to be about things that everybody thinks are important.
Be part of a virtual team. I can’t think of any occasion when digital policy engagement should be delivered separately from other forms of engagement. Ideally we would always be operating as part of a virtual team of digital experts, strategic communicators, policy officials and others, all dedicated to achieving the same aim. In a virtual team you can share what you’re thinking, encourage new ideas, and support brave decisions. And you can create a sense of purpose and urgency. Have 3 huddles a day if you need to.
Identify what digital can do best. Digital engagement won’t be useful for everything. Some things are better achieved offline, by governments talking to governments, or by marketing. Our best examples of digital engagement at DH tend to have a narrow rather than broad focus, with very specific digital objectives. Have a plan for where digital can be most useful, write it down and deliver it.
Align sustained digital engagement with communications priorities. There’s not always an exact fit between digital policy engagement priorities and communication priorities, but ideally one should support the other. Aligning digital engagement work to a communications priority should means that the digital work benefits from the interest and eyeballs generated by wider communications work, as well as the related infrastructure, resources and budget.
Get everyone doing digital. Digital engagement rarely works if it’s just the digital team doing it. It’s much better if people outside the digital team have a sense of ownership of the digital engagement work and are in there doing it. Hold a workshop at the start, get people writing content, taking part, responding to comments, and looking at the stats. It’s a signal that you have succeeded if you find yourself surprised by excellent, unplanned digital engagement from people outside the digital team.
Stay close the evidence. If you let insight guide every decision you make, you’ll do better work and be more satisfied with the results. Be the person at the meeting who is all over the numbers. Map influencers and gather intelligence. Be creative about the things that you can measure that tell you something useful and set targets. Celebrate stuff that works, but admit failure when it goes wrong. Be creative about how you share evidence. Make nice graphs that tell stories which people can act on. Change your tactics if the numbers are heading in the wrong direction.
At their best, digital policy engagement campaigns should be strategic, well planned and sustained. I have plenty of experience of working on things that have gone a bit wrong, or just fizzled out. But I reckon that the digital engagement campaigns that I’ve been involved in that have worked best have had most of the above in common.