It’s been a year since I joined a team called Engage in the Business Transformation Group in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
It’s challenged how I work, act and think. It’s made me think about whether communicators — particularly communicators in government — should be transforming.
I joined the Engage team because the challenge sounded amazing. Telling the story of how we are transforming a department as large and important as DWP was very attractive. And to tell this story against an undercurrent of cynicism, disbelief, apathy and entrenched hierarchical organisational behaviour? Well, that just got me more interested.
What’s happening to transform DWP is a long process of re-engineering ways of working; it‘s not something to be fixed with a new policy. Nobody is going to be convinced by some communication campaigns, a series of well-placed news stories, a few intranet articles and quotes from notable leaders.
So there I was, less than 6 years into my civil service career and looking for trouble. I found it.
Starting the job — with baggage
Starting the job, I had optimistic ideas of working with a senior leadership team to create the narrative and communication strategy, and working with graphic designers, event managers, video producers who would use their expert skills to build communication products we could use to tell the story.
Well, that sort of worked. But what I hadn’t realised was that I needed to transform too. As a communicator in government, I’ve always admired those people with what I saw as the more technical communication skills — people who could turn carefully crafted narrative into a well-designed poster, a video, a website, an infographic, an engaging dashboard— leaving me to lead the communication strategy.
In fact, being an averagely senior communicator in government, for 6 years I’d been strongly discouraged to be hands on. My job, drilled into me in regular performance discussions, was to set the strategy, manage the stakeholders or suppliers, and lead the team as they rolled up their sleeves and created comms products. If I strayed too deep into hands-on comms I’d have been thought of as not being very strategic.
It started well — setting the strategy
It all started well. The Engage team had created a buzz about the work being done to transform DWP, but the story was in danger of running out of steam as it became harder to create fresh and compelling examples of the work being done. Recycling the same well-executed ideas was only going to get us so far. We were big on products but low on strategy.
My first week was spent forging our engagement strategy. With fresh eyes I could underpin the business objectives with communication objectives, delivery and evaluation plans, and recommend products and tools we would need to tell the story.
So far so good — my first week only made me more excited to be part of the team.
But I sensed trouble. There was definitely an expectation that I’d not only do some strategic thinking but I’d also have the skills and mindset to be creating content, building the products, using communication technology that I’d only ever heard much more technical communicators speak of.
Not my comfort zone at all. In fact, it went against how I’d been trained to ‘be’ as an averagely senior communicator in government.
Having a go — and having real doubts
I was new and I wanted to be part of the Engage team so I gave it a try. I wrote intranet pages, I drafted articles, I wrote newsletters, I chose icons and pictures. I lumbered through, trying to use my old technology and mindset to work in a team that was all about transforming a traditional, hierarchical department.
I also felt that I was slipping backwards as a government communicator. Spending so much time doing the doing, in the detail, gave me huge doubts. It felt like I was performing in a much more junior role, unable to evidence my work against that of my peers, losing my strategic skills and credibility.
It was scary — I voiced real fears to people around me, often in a not too constructive way. It became frustrating and a huge worry. It felt like I was losing the communications skills and experience I’d built up, and that I was never going to catch up with what was around me — people confidently using MacBooks, creating videos, designing digital products.
Something had to give. Christmas arrived, and with it a chance to have some space from my increasingly worrying day job, and a chance to reflect.
New year, new thinking
I came back to work refreshed. I’d spent time weighing up the things I enjoyed about work (people, creativity, ideas, delivery, feeling part of something). I also pondered the things I’d be happy to leave behind (bureaucracy, hierarchy, ponderous governance, slow-paced delivery).
I decided to throw myself into transformation — starting with transforming me.
I paid a lot of attention to some of the mantras we use to describe how we are transforming DWP — a lot of them are from the Agile techniques we use to design services around user needs. ‘Learn by doing’ and ‘show the thing’ stood out for me.
Learn by doing
I got a Macbook, and spent weeks cursing the unexpected keyboard shortcuts and wildly misbehaving trackpad. I asked a developer to train me in using a Wordpress blog and started publishing. I joined workshops where more technical colleagues kindly shared their video production skills, and I started to storyboard videos. I paid close attention to how to work the camera, microphone and tripod and started, with others, to create videos. I upgraded my vintage iPhone 4 for an iPhone 6. I created a few infographics.
I learned a bit about working in an Agile way. I used kanban walls to plan. I set up ‘show and tells’ to work collaboratively on creating videos. I joined in with Discovery, I did ‘test and learn’, I showed the thing.
Being the thing
All of this felt great — right at the heart of telling the transformation story. But it wasn’t enough. I’d spent months encouraging others to blog, be filmed, be photographed, use their professional social media channels to help to tell our story. But I wasn’t doing it myself. I wasn’t being the thing. I had to transform some more.
I set up my professional twitter account and tentatively tried to find my online personality and voice. I found what I liked to follow and engage in online, what I liked to read and comment on. I started to tell the story of how we are transforming DWP.
And as I did so I paid more attention to people talking about digital communications, marketing technology, skills that communicators need to engage across a range of channels and media. Not just skills, but an attitude that was about delivering end-to-end communications, from setting strategy to delivering and evaluating engagement — regardless of the averagely senior level of their job.
‘Being the thing’ was exciting, fun, powerful, creative. I’m glad that while I was telling the story of transforming DWP I started to transform me. It doesn’t end there though — I’m still transforming. This week, I’ve shot video footage, used Wordpress, taken photographs, created an infographic, used Snapchat, designed content for an event, written content for a newsprint product, tried using Illustrator and Indesign.
And I decided to start this blog. If nothing else, it might act as an apology to the people who I pestered during my ‘doubting my job’ phase, a thank you to those who’ve patiently shared their knowledge and skills, and as encouragement to communicators who are transforming.