Why Design Changes Communications…

Oct 12th, 2016

Over the last several months, my head has been wrapped up in things communications.

ISED Design Lab hosted US communications expert Steven Gaffney on September 29, 2016.

Steven spoke about honest communications hammering home that between 70-80% of perception about people is wrong, thus contributing toward incomplete & inaccurate communication at work and at home.

Strikes me that in design thinking, this is the kiss of death.

Since I started in the Lab October 2015, I’ve dealt with public servants who are skirting the edge of innovation. Unsure – maybe afraid – of what that looks like or means.

Communications is a key inhibitor or enabler in this journey.

In recent days I’ve dealt with public sector communications professionals being told to ‘innovate’, ‘think outside the box’, and ‘do something different’. Get on more social media platforms. Solicit greater on-going engagement. Maybe actually respond in real-time, custom fashion, to tweets that deal with their public sector business.

But if change is to truly occur, a fundamental rethink needs to happen.

Here’s my take.

The communications competency in the public service needs to pivot and shift, not incrementally, but so as to find a value proposition that is relevant and authentic beyond 2020.

Co-creation is the key.

(Not consultation in its own right, although this plays in the mix.)

Most communications shops are traditional – linear in support of Ministerial/senior official voices – pushing out messaging, but unevenly taking in responses, then adding potential value as that content is massaged and subsequently pushed back into the community. I’m generalizing.

But my point is that the public sector communications competency has not reinventeditself in a meaningful way in years.

And I think the time is ripe for it to do so.

Public sector communications professionals should consider taking advantage of design thinking in public service as a vehicle for driving a new communications value.

What do I mean?

In short, design thinking is about creating and using empathy to understand the pain points experienced by the public. Pain points are solved by using various tools and techniques to develop a prototype solution for testing. Prototype solutions are created with the very people experiencing the pain point itself. So your worst critic, and your ardent supporter, are in the room together, with you, to hammer out a prototype policy, program or regulation that can be tested to rid the pain point.

Throw communications into this public sector mix.

To me, the new public sector communications competency is about learning how to co-create narratives. Tell real life, on-going and authentic stories – about how governments and their citizens try to solve the big, wicked problems of the day together with citizens.

Its not about re-tweets, or tweeting more from Deputy accounts or positioning the Minister to have the largest number of one-time Facebook likes.

Its deeper, more sustained and dynamic.

Here’s my model (a dream team under construction at the ISED Design Lab).

I counsel every Lab client to embed a communications specialist on their team from the onset. The goal is to live through the entire design process – from idea, initiation, planning, design workshop execution and prototyping/evaluation stage from the get go. Because who but the client communications guru knows the client’s business best.

Done right, it means that the story of solving the client’s problem can be told from the beginning of the design process, right through the end of the prototype testing, evaluation & eventual scaling. The value is telling it in an authentic and real-time voice – which is created together with the very people the design process is trying to help.

Raising it up a notch, then the key is to figure out how to tell that design & problem-solving narrative against the rubric of deliverology while taking advantage of Treasury Board Minister Brison’s ‘fixed percentage of program funds commitment for experimentation that is measured’. (Full disclosure — my Design Lab is working with Treasury Board to help design an accountability framework for measuring experimentation. I am all for a wide definition of experimentation to support those in public service on the edge of innovation.)

Baking in communications talent, at the beginning of a design exercise, is the key success factor to showcasing the value of the communications competency to Canadians. Regardless of whether the design experience is good, bad or indifferent, what matters in the end is its authentic expression.

Public sector communication isn’t about press releases or tweets any longer.

Its about co-creating a story that is honest, authentic and real-time across whatever platform Canadians choose to consume.

Its a brave new world.

Curious to see who wants to play in Canada’s public service.


vision | voice | visuals mine