Improving Internal Communications Within The Public Sector

Mark Terry - October 1, 2019

Getting internal communications right is always a challenge, but never more so than in the public sector. Local government employees are at the forefront of delivering almost all public services, so it is essential that they are well-informed, motivated and ready to collaborate.

In order to provide the best possible service to their communities, this workforce needs to have the most up-to-date information about their organisation, and an appreciation for the challenges it is facing. But this is a workforce that’s hard to reach and difficult to engage. With such a varied range of services provided by every council, staff are dispersed by geography, shift patterns and services. Many of them don’t even have regular access to the organisation’s IT infrastructure. Add to that the constant pressure of budget cuts and council communications become even more challenging.

As such, even amid the global digital transformation, many councils rely on traditional internal communication channels: weekly newsletters, cascaded bulletins and noticeboards. It’s hardly surprising then, that local authorities struggle to reach and engage with their employees.

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A matter of trust

Communication is further complicated by the decline in public trust over the last decade. With numerous well-publicised public and private sector scandals, the public has become more cynical and has lost confidence in the motivations of politicians, businesses and the media. People no longer accept well-scripted information from these sources, often writing it off as propaganda. Instead, they are increasingly turning to the internet and social media to compile their own narratives – narratives that are all-too-often woefully inaccurate.

Unfortunately, the workplace is not immune to this scepticism, making it increasingly difficult to craft an authentic story and build trust. Employees often lack confidence in their senior leadership and doubt that those leaders have their best interests at heart.1

Reputation is everything

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”

Warren Buffett, American Business Magnate

Reputation, like trust, is a fragile thing. As American business magnate Warren Buffett once said: “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”. It is therefore essential to do everything you can to avoid that damage.

Reputation is built on what people say about you, what you say about yourself, and whether you do what you say you’re going to do. Employees are crucial to all three of these elements.

Whenever a member of the public uses your services, they’re evaluating your performance against the promises your organisation has made. The more often they interact with their local authority, the more likely it is that they’ll engage with employees from different services with different priorities – increasing the chances of an inconsistent message.

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An effective local government communications strategy is central in solving these issues. It has everyone working towards the same goal, with the same information and the same message. That helps to create a unified customer experience. This strategy builds trust in the organisation’s leadership. It promotes the valuable role that staff play in communicating your messages and ambitions, and ensures that no one misses important information or updates.

A key element in this is having staff thinking and speaking positively about their local authority. And since many of them are also living in the communities their council serves, getting this right also increases direct communication with local residents.

The problem is that half your employees don’t know what strategy your organisation is pursuing, and only half of those that do ever get feedback on progress towards those goals. Those lucky few are usually in more senior roles, leaving those who work on the front lines – with all the customer contact – with little idea as to what’s going on.

But it’s not just a matter of telling these people what the strategy is. To implement it effectively, your workforce needs to be equipped to deliver it.

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How do we build effective council communications?

Focus on behaviour

Today, more than ever, internal communications professionals have greater influence within an organisation, but expectations are also higher. No longer is it enough to simply communicate a message. A modern internal communications strategy should be built on behaviours: determining the qualities of the desired workforce culture and then building the communications environment that fosters it. Simply telling people to behave in a certain way isn’t going to work – you need to give them the tools that encourage the behaviours you hope to cultivate.

Know your audience

Marketing teams have long understood the importance of knowing their audience – even segmenting larger audiences in order to be sure that they have the right message for the right people. Internal audiences are no different. Information should be tailored with the recipient in mind. It can even help to develop personas for your internal audiences, helping you understand who they are and what matters to them.

Present a practical strategy

The local government’s strategic narrative should set out its vision for the future. It should be achievable and actionable. It should also provide a clear path for employees to follow, rather than requiring them to interpret the message. It’s down to internal communicators to identify opportunities where they can bring this to life and articulate the organisation’s strategy and vision.

Build visibility and trust in your leadership

Senior management also needs to be committed to supporting the organisation’s values. What they say must also be what they do. Employees will soon notice if they don’t, which leads to cynicism and disaffection. If your internal communications strategy is squarely linked to your business strategy, then it becomes integral to the success of the organisation. Do that and senior management are much more inclined to sit up and take notice.

Embrace the digital revolution

Perhaps more than any other sector, public sector employees need to be mobile, informed, vocal and more influential than ever. These people are the front line; they define the customer experience. As such, they need to be engaged, motivated and provided with all the information necessary to do their jobs well. Providing digital resources and support wherever and whenever they need it is critical in getting this right.

Give employees a louder voice

Employees who know that their opinions and concerns are being addressed will be more engaged. Cut back on all-personnel emails and instead provide familiar and engaging ways for every member of staff – be they employees, temps or contractors – to participate and contribute. A workforce motivated in this way will soon be generating innovative ideas to improve performance.

Help your managers do the talking

It’s hardly news that employees prefer to communicate via their manager. That makes those managers the most important channel for any internal communications strategy. They have the most significant impact on employee attitude and behaviour.

However, most internal communication teams focus the majority of their time and budget on formal channels, which have very little impact on employees. Any successful local government communications strategy should encourage their leaders and managers to do the talking – preferably face to face.

Coping with change and crisis

There are two circumstances where council communications become crucial: times of change and times of crisis.

Times of change

Due to the nature of public sector organisations, change is even more frequent than in the private sector. As such, it’s imperative to communicate with employees and ensure that they’re interested, informed and engaged in the process. This means communicating early and often, and involving the workforce as much as possible. Mobile apps are great for this. However, there are some messages that are so sensitive that the only way to deliver them is face to face.

Times of crisis

When everything goes wrong you can be sure that local government will find itself in the headlines. That means that council communications are more important than ever – striving to prevent things from getting any worse, and ensuring that all employees know what is happening, why it is happening, and what is being done about it. It’s important to get your immediate response right, coordinate your messages, and remind people of your policies. This is something that should be prepared for and practised. And be sure to evaluate what worked and what didn’t when everything calms down again.

Bringing it all together

Public sector internal communications will always be a challenge. There’s a lot to consider and a lot to get right.

But one big improvement is to engage workers no matter where they are: in the office or working remotely. Empower them with a voice, and a channel through which they can stay informed about what’s happening within their local authority.

Using digital communication via mobile and desktop apps allows councils to motivate and engage their employees, wherever they might be. It can also provide the forum that your staff need to contribute and express their own ideas and opinions.

An integrated internal communications app is a cost-effective approach to helping public sector organisations adopt the processes, culture and technology of modern digital media. That allows councils to get the most from their workforce and show the world that they really will make good on those promises.

If you'd like to find out more about developing a successful communication strategy within a public sector organisation, click here for (almost) everything you need to know on internal communication.

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1 Making the Connections: Using Internal Communication to Turn Strategy into Action, Bill Quirke, 2008