SURVEY: How public sector comms people have fared working through the pandemic part 1: the big picture

When the story of the first 12-months of the COVID-19 pandemic is written it will record more than 100,000 dead.

It will also record Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’ address to the nation.

Nothing will record profound sense of shock and alarm in those first few days in what was the beginning of a long trudge to try and find normality.

Without question the death rate would have been far higher but for public sector communicators who were enlisted into the biggest crisis since World War Two.

But what impact has it had on them?

The price paid

Stress, longer hours, a retreat to working from home and a loss of face-to-face office connections have been what fire, police, NHS, local and central government comms teams have faced.

In July 2020, I started a survey of fire, police, NHS, central and local government communicators which has turned into a rolling tracker that’s captured some of the ebb ands flow.

It reveals the secret price paid by those asked to support those on the frontline.

In many places there is no off switch and burn-out is present. In others, the changes have been welcomed.

Worryingly, it’s a price paid with a tsunami of mental health problems, deteriorating physical health, increased isolation and stress often in the face of a lack of leadership, information and resources.

In this blog post I run through 12-months of figures that are likely to throw a long shadow across the lives of those involved.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Feel like I’m “Living at work” rather than “working from home” – no boundaries between working day and down time.”

 “I have gained a lot from the pandemic so this outweighs the hard times.”

Most say it’s getting easier

At last, in summer 2021 the indicators finally show that working in the pandemic is getting easier. More than 40 per cent gave this positive feedback in the survey. That’s a figure that’s double those who think it is getting harder.

Q: Is working in the pandemic getting easier or harder?

But health continues to suffer

Across the pandemic, mental health and physical health among public sector people has taken a battering.

Worryingly, this isn’t improving.

With physical health, 52 per cent say it has worsened in the most recent survey in April and May 2021. Mental health has also taken a beating with 58 per cent of public sector people reporting deteriorating mental health.

This is the canary in the coalmine for the sector.

Q: Is your mental health getting better or worse?

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working from home gave me more time to exercise at the start and end of the working day.”

With a real national push to care for our wellbeing I have actually worked out more and more consistently since the start of the pandemic than before.

“Less time and motivation to exercise, higher stress.”

“I’ve had a couple of emergency hospital visits due to stress related symptoms. Found myself crying with anxiety and work overload and no real support.”

The positives still hold

Across the pandemic, a consistent three out of four have reported they have felt as though they are working for the common good.

Around half have felt through the last 12-months as though they are part of a team.

Feeling as though you are part of an organisation that has felt valued has been more problematic. In June 2020, 41 per cent reported this but it slipped to a quarter through the remainder of the year rallying again to 40 per cent in May and June 2021.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

 “Had a couple of serious wobbles, but learnt better how to deal with them.”

The negatives remain

The darker side of the coin in working through the pandemic has been the impact on home.

A third have consistently experienced problems with home schooling and a tenth with looking after a loved one.

Stress as spring 2021 turned into summer remains an endemic issue with 74 per cent reporting it as an issue – a four per cent improvement on January 2021.

However, lack of direction has also been a problem.

In April and May 2020, 40 per cent reported this with UK Government and a third reporting the same issue with home governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A lack of leadership from the comms person’s own organisation has improved by five points to 25 per cent.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Lack of support at work and unappreciated in my job, became more apparent during covid. Felt like comms was seen as disposable as we weren’t physically seen as often.”

A lack of resources is biting

Enough tools and staff to do the job has remained a consistent problem with 23 per cent reporting a lack of staff sliding to 36 per cent in the most recent study. This was mirrored by a lack of resources to do the job surging from 24 per cent in 2020 to 38 per cent in April and May 2021.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working in a comms team means you’re often on your own working with services, and not being in the office means you often feel very isolated from the rest of your team. My manager has been absent and I’m struggling to fight to get things taken seriously by upper management and having to stand up to lots of people within the service… and failing to win the arguments a lot of the time. This is one of the biggest impacts on my mental health – but there are so many others.”

Winter was the hardest period

Each period of the pandemic has had its own challenges and problems. The survey showed winter with lockdown 2.0 was the hardest for 45 per cent of public sector comms people. That beat lockdown 1.0 with 26 per cent. Regional lockdowns in the autumn (11 per cent) was third toughest with just four per cent saying the opening months of 2021 were hardest.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“It worsened during the winter 2020/21 but improved as restrictions lifted.”

Q: Which period of the pandemic was hardest?

The working from home dilemma

It’s clear that working from home has been Marmite. Some love some don’t. As we look at how we go back to the office heads of comms and managers need to know that they’ll have people keen on the idea and those who hate it.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working from home is less stressful and tiring than travelling to the office every day. Prefer the peace and quiet to think.”

“Home has merged into office and the boundaries of the working day have disappeared- I feel like the usual 9-5 mon to drive has been replaced with 24/7 and after a year, my mind, body and, dare I say it, passion has wilted away.”

Abuse is rampant

More than 12-months into the pandemic and abuse is worsening.

Those seeing abuse aimed at their fire, council, police, council or government department has risen from 27 per cent seen weekly to 31 per cent. Verbal abuse aimed at individuals has almost doubled from seven to 13 per cent as a weekly incident.

Racist abuse is seen daily by 16 per cent of respondents – that’s up from nine per cent last summer.

The back to business-as-usual mistake

The figures are alarming and they paint a picture which can often be toxic for those enduring it. There is a health penalty to be paid and how to respond to support staff is one of the challenges facing people.

There is anecdotal talk of a big push to normality when there’s nothing to give.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

My mental health has taken an absolute battering, mainly down to the workload. Not we’re coming through the other side of the pandemic all I want to do is rest and reset, but business as usual has kicked back in and the chief is talking about three months of hard work to get the organisation back on track. We haven’t got any more to give.”

In part two, I’ll look at the data country-by-country and also sector by sector.

GOVCOMMS: 7 things to bring local and central government comms people together

9422535872_8e4d08002a_bSo, how do local government and central government comms people work better together?

There was an event the other day in Whitehall which looked at this very topic which I would have loved to have got to. But I work in the West Midlands so that wasn’t going to happen.

It’s a good question and one that I’d given a lot of thought to just recently. Not just because the LGComms Future Leaders course I’d been involved with was asked just this question and asked to come up with a presentation.

One of the good things about being in the public sector is the ability to share ideas and approaches. This doesn’t happen in the private sector. As one person recently put it, they’ll tell you what they did but they’ll just leave out a vital piece of information so you can’t follow. It’s like handing over a car without the spark plugs.

So here are some things that should happen.

6 things to bring local and central government comms people together

1. Realise that each side isn’t the enemy. You’d be forgiven for thinking sometimes reading the Daily Mail that local government was to blame for the banking crisis, Northern Rock and the nationalisation of the banks. Just think what would have happened had local government mis-sold products. Step aside from the headlines and realise that there is more to bring  civil Service and local government comms people together. We both face the question ‘what does communications mean in 2014?’ for example.

2. Paid secondments both ways. A few years ago a secondment from local government into the civil service could have been do-able. Not now. There isn’t the spare capacity anymore in local government. But funded posts could help backfill and share the knowledge. Even better if they are French-exchange-style two way affairs. Better still if they involve co-operation on the same project.

3. Open up central government training to local government. The Goverment Communications Service (formerly the Government Communications Network) stages a range of good training opportunities. It would be great if this was open to local government too.

4. Open up local government seminars to central government. Places like LGComms put on some excellent sessions. The different perspective of a Whitehall comms person would be useful. Just as the comms person more used to dealing with the community would be a benefit to a central government person.

5. Encourage events like commscamp. In February last year more than 130 comms people from Whitehall and local government came together in a joint event for what must have been the first time. There were more than 400 on the waitlist when it was turned off.  The agenda was decided on the day by those who went. Anarchy? Not really. It worked beautifully. It was organised by people in central and local government in their own time. (Disclaimer: I’m biased as I helped co-organise commscamp.)

6. Realise that neither side is better. They’re just different. As government departments put more focus on stakeholder groups local government listens to residents more. At a time when the Foreign Office is putting more effort – rightly – into answering queries on Twitter there’s pr people in Staffordshire or Norfolk who could tell them a few things. They are two different skills. It made me realise that neither side is better. We’re just different.

7. We both work in the public sector and should be proud of that. Sure, the private sector does some good things. But we delivered the Olympics, we save lives, we keep the roads running, our children educated and a whole load of other things too. How much better is that than flogging toothpaste?

EDIT: GCS courses are also now available to local government people. That’s welcome.

Creative commons credit.

Big Ben http://www.flickr.com/photos/mahatsorri/9422535872/sizes/l/

FUTURE GOVCOMMS: Training, Trust and Re-Training Ministers

So, what should the future of government communications look like? If you think it’s tweeting press releases wearing a One Direction t-shirt you’re wrong.

Refreshingly, the UK government has stood up and on The Guardian website admitted it had a good idea. But not a definitive one.

The newspaper asks readers what it would tell Alex Aiken the government’s executive director of government communications. Which is either a blast of refreshing openness or a bit of window dressing. Actually, let’s take them at face value. Because no-one really has the last word. And Alex used to be localgov as I am now.

A changing landscape

If you are interested in communications, have a look at the new draft communications plan here.

Not only that but whole swathes of the government-wide communications plan should be printed out and shared vigorously. Not least the paragraph:

“We are operating against a fast changing backdrop.

“Digital TV and broadband access at home are now the norm.

“45 per cent of viewing is now of non-terrestrial channels, three times more than ITV1.

“Half of homes now have some form of personal video recorder such as Sky Plus.

“Newspaper sales continue to decline but the growth of online versions means that some content – often entertainment related-news stories – can reach more people than ever before.

“Social media channels are playing an ever greater role in spreading news and opinion.”

That they see that the landscape is changing is a profound relief to me. The facts loom so large as to be undeliable and people are starting slowly to grasp this. Whether we are all moving as fast as we could to embrace change is something else.

“In simple terms government should continue to shift from a static or traditional view of channels and audiences to one that reflects people’s lives, preferences and influences.”

It also talks about the three things that government comms needs to do. The legal obligation to tell people about big planning matters, for example. Or the explaining Minister’s priorities. And the attempt to change behaviours.

For local government too…

It’s tempting to think that local government can do this too. At a stroke. As a sector. But that would be silly. And it also forgets that people in Devon know more about what channels Devon people use than people who live in Dudley. But it’s absolutely the path that local government comms needs to go down.

It also means that comms people need to acknowledge they may not have all the answers to comms any more. Will that undermine the profession? Not, really. A bit of refreshing honesty is vital. Besides, I’ve learned so much about digital comms from bloggers, engineers and environmental health officers.

The 37 skills a comms person will need

Last summer I wrote a post that talks about the 37 skills we’ll need. I was a bit wrong. We won’t all need those. But you can bet your bottom dollar that teams will and the more you’ll have the better it’ll be for you.

The list includes traditional, digital, community building, mapping, infographics, social media, story telling, political nous and lots more beside.

8510599726_27c28f402f_hWe’ll need generalists but digital specialists who will horizon scan and share the knowledge.

We’ll need better training. We’ll need better ways to share good ideas. We’ll need more things like commscamp where local and central government people came together to do just that (disclaimer: I helped organise that.)

But more important than that, much more we’ll need the space to experiment and try new things. That’ll come from the top. It’ll come from Ministers themselves and senior officers. Or rather, it’ll come from our ability to re-train the Minister that something on Twitter is more important than the Today programme’s running order. Or in local government terms, that’s the local newspaper.

When I was a journalist we had an amazing media law refresher. We returned to the chalk face keen to push the boundaries. We were slapped down by our news editors. Training is wasted unless the people at the top get it too.

Salvation will come from an ongoing bombardment of stats, facts, figures, reporting back and internal communications. We think training is the answer. It’s not. It’s the start. Space to fail and learn from failing is.

But we also need to think about trust. More specifically, the Edelman Trust Barmeter that talks of how trust in institutions is up. But trust in those at the top is low but trust in those at the bottom is high. In other words, we don’t believe the chief executive of Royal Mail. But we trust our postman.

We need to be able to deliver comms outside of comms and give the people on the frontline the tools to communicate like West Midlands Police do and like we do in growing parts of local government too. At this point I link to Morgan Bowers a countryside ranger at Walsall Council with 1,100 followers on Twitter who are receptive to explanations about why saplings have to be cut down.

It’ll also mean hiring bloggers for their skills. Not just journalists.

So much is made in the Government document about savings. I’d like to hear more about results and what exciting possibilities we have stretching out in front of us too, please.

Creative commons credits
Houses of Parliament http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_nige/5032302221/sizes/l/
Commscamp http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/8510599726/sizes/h/
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