Digital dialogue: COVID-19 and the modernisation of public sector communications

By on 31/03/2022 | Updated on 31/03/2022

Public sector organisations have faced an extraordinary challenge in trying to ensure that communications keep pace with the very different and fast-moving requirements posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. At a webinar hosted by 8×8, experts discussed changes, hurdles, and what the future holds for government communications

From phone calls to social media to AI-powered digital assistants, how public sector decision makers communicate both inside their organisation and with service users has fundamentally changed in recent years, with change accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. In this dynamic environment, public sector organisations often struggle to identify what communication technology works best for them and to create a connected system that delivers the best outcomes.

Cloud communications platform provider 8×8 conducted a survey asking public sector users as well as decision makers what they need to create a communications system that best empowers staff to deliver modern experiences. The research findings were presented during a recent webinar hosted by 8×8.

About two thirds of those surveyed saw their digital transformation activities accelerated because of the pandemic, said Russ Chadinha, senior director of solution marketing at 8×8. While about 42% of organisations were “a little bit slow” on pushing forward their digital transformation activities before the pandemic, research data now showed “a good understanding” of the fact that enabling remote work also required modern communication capabilities, Chadinha explained.

More than half (55%) of organisations indicated they now have more communication applications than prior to the pandemic. “So the situation is getting more complex,” Chadinha said, adding that respondents complained that half of the applications are not making it easier to deliver “an excellent experience”. On top of that, 65% of the professionals said communication systems were not helping them reduce wait times.

According to Chadinha, one of the key findings of the research was a generational divide. While Generation X (62%) and Boomers (73%) still prefer the telephone, Generation Z and Millennials strongly prefer chat apps and emails as communication channels. Almost half of the Generation Z respondents said they would like to use more modern channels such as WhatsApp. On the other hand, 69% of the Boomers feel that current systems support all of their preferred communication channels.

When asked what was required to modernise current communication systems, respondents’ top three answers were “ease of implementation” (77%), accessibility (69%) and “ability to enable organisation wide collaboration” (67%). “This is all about enabling staff to be able to deliver a confident, accurate, and quick answer or resolution to a query,” said Chadinha. “It’s all about speed. Speed equals convenience.” The least selected requirement was “AI powered automation capabilities” (37%).

What are the barriers organisations face when replacing or upgrading their communication systems? Cost (45%) and budget constraints (44%) were the top answers in the survey. Russell Tilsed, senior director – public sector at 8×8, pointed out how costly managing multiple systems is. “We have examples where organisations are taking nine systems down to a single system,” Tilsed said, adding that this resulted in “real cost saving… we’ve seen payback in less than five months”.

Government as a social publisher

Peter Heneghan, deputy director of digital at 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, Communications, then provided some insight into the government’s communication strategies throughout the pandemic. In contrast to “the old way of communications” when the conversation was “largely controlled through the media”, Heneghan sees media as now having been replaced by medium. “And by medium, I mean everything from social media, to traditional media outlets, to influencers, to direct communication with friends.”

Against this backdrop, the government started to change its communication approach. “We started seeing ourselves more as editorial, more about collaboration across government departments, and more about amplification,” Heneghan explained. His digital communications and campaigns team took on the role of “social publisher” and produced over 1,000 pieces of content in three months. With an amplification strategy across all government social media channels, they reached 3 billion impressions organically. “The strategy was definitely working.”

One innovation Heneghan highlighted had to do with what he called “democratising how we communicate”. “We introduced the ‘’ proposition, which allowed the public to put questions directly to the Prime Minister and other ministers.” While this step was initially seen as controversial, his team received over 650,000 questions throughout the process, many of them quite different from those usually asked by the mainstream media.

“What’s been amazing is we’ve now been able to data-mine those questions and feed that back to policy and communicators,” said Heneghan. In doing so, they discovered issues for instance around domestic violence as a topic before it became mainstream news. “I think that’s been a huge innovation for us, we’re going to continue to do that going forward.”

Another area his team focused on was working with NHSX – the digital unit of the National Health Service (NHS), which is merging with NHS England – on developing a WhatsApp chatbot. “At the start of the pandemic, we were really struggling with mis- and disinformation. And we all know there was a lot of disinformation happening on WhatsApp at the time,” said Heneghan. Working with WhatsApp’s parent company Meta, the aim was to ensure that official information was being disseminated effectively via the messaging app.

Massive changes for clinicians

During the webinar, Jeffrey Wood, deputy director of ICT at the Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust, described his experience coming into the NHS three years ago as a significant step back in time from local authority and the private sector. “We had something like 85% desktops throughout our system, 65% of those were seven years or older.” To suddenly switch to cloud telephony and laptops during the year that led into the pandemic proved to be a massive change for the clinicians.

In Wood’s ICT team, simple tasks such as picking up a computer for repairs or fixing a phone couldn’t be performed anymore as the pandemic started to hit. “We had to think of a number of different ways of communicating,” Wood said. Non-clinical staff were sent home or set up in separate office units. “We had to work out ways of talking between a secure COVID ward and a non-secure area or of making sure that equipment was available to pass through.”

From setting up iPads so patients could talk to their relatives to providing full virtual consultations, what helped the most was “a massive investment of time and money”, Wood explained. For example, the hospital suddenly had a massive influx of people phoning in instead of walking in, which initially lead to “dramatic problems” for the switchboard team. After the number of phone lines was almost doubled, more people were experiencing their calls not being answered. “So we went down the route of intelligent voice recognition to transfer people to the wards they needed to speak to,” said Wood. “COVID was a massive change for us and in some respects has helped the NHS significantly leap forward.”

The changes made in the hospital during the pandemic are mostly going to be permanent as they have for instance illustrated the advantages of working from home, Wood explained. Illustrating this, he said the cost of clinical space in London is about £1,000 per square metre compared to office space, which is available for £100 per square metre or less. “We found we could make significant savings by just moving our admin staff out of those clinical areas and giving them back to clinicians. That’s one reason we won’t go back,” he said. The other is that working from home has shown a positive impact on staff’s health and overall wellbeing and enabled the hospital to employ from anywhere in the country – if the job permits.

In terms of technical improvements, Wood highlighted the capability to remotely monitor wards making it possible for one nurse to keep an eye on multiple areas. He also mentioned Microsoft’s HoloLens, which can be worn by a clinician interacting with patients, while the remainder of the team see a first-person view from the HoloLens wearer on a computer. “It gives patients that freedom to actually express themselves more on a one-to-one basis, which is easier than talking to a big group of people,” said Wood. “Things have changed and I cannot see them changing back to a significant extent.”

Disruptive advancements on the horizon

Robin Gordon-Farleigh, former senior communications strategist at the UK Prime Minister’s Office, now works with governments around the world and provides communication advice. Summarising the lessons for the public sector during the pandemic, he listed the need to communicate quickly, the need to follow the audience to where they are and the need to adapt the content to each channel.

He also brought up a recent survey in which half of the 9,000 respondents felt the government’s response during the pandemic was low in empathy. But Gordon-Farleigh argued that the messaging needed to be less empathetic at the time due to the urgency. “The imagery especially on some of the campaigns had to be really hard hitting because we needed to drive behaviour change overnight,” he said. The government made use of focus groups to determine what would resonate, which led to “nice punchy messages that were tailored for the right time,” as Gordon-Farleigh put it.

If he were to pick out one key element during the pandemic to highlight, it would be the work of the Behavioural Insights Team, unofficially known as the “nudge unit”, Gordon-Farleigh said. Going forward, Heneghan said government would be relying on behavioural science teams even more and pointed out how expertise in data and behavioural science as well as content and marketing had been pulled into a central hub.

In his closing remarks, Chadinha said that “what happened over the last two years has actually better prepared us for what’s coming”. Technological advancements such as augmented reality, virtual reality or extended reality (XR) were just on the horizon and going to be “pretty disruptive”, he said. While the pandemic had “prepared us to be ready to manage that change”, he warned about being ready for the accelerating rate of innovation and technological change. “It’s an exciting time that we’re faced with.”

The webinar ‘Communication breakthrough: how the public sector can keep pace in the digital age’ was hosted by 8×8 on 10 February 2022, with support from Global Government Forum. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

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