Blog: Putting internal comms at the heart of local government improvement

After two years leading internal comms for Children’s Services at West Sussex County Council, I have found myself in a reflective space, thinking about what has changed (so much!), the difference our comms has made to our staff and how that creates a positive change for the children and young people we work with.

I have always believed that internal comms can be powerful and make a lasting impact. I consider I am in a fortunate position because I have a seat at the top table as part of our Department Leadership Team where internal comms has been prioritised and is valued. So often, organisations consider it a low priority, especially in comparison to external campaigns.

Both internally and externally, we are very open about the challenges we have faced in West Sussex. Back in 2019, Ofsted rated our children’s services as ‘inadequate.’ Since then, we have been on a steep improvement journey and part of this journey has been to improve our internal comms.

Over the past 18 months, we have done many things to drive this forward. We committed to a weekly update from our Executive Director which helps keep everyone informed. A monthly round up of all our key messages is produced and we ask managers to check in and discuss these with their staff at 1:1 meetings so we share the ownership and ensure that everything is clearly understood.

Staff engagement has changed dramatically as the pandemic has forced everyone to work and think differently. Our leadership team has invested time in really getting to know staff. I held my breath at our first round of staff engagement events, having suggested no agenda or the safety net of the trusted power point presentation! Instead, we just listen to our staff, hear how they are doing, what is working well and what we could improve, and answer any questions they have. There was a risk that no-one would say anything but fortunately that didn’t happen, and these events now run on a quarterly basis.

Getting the tone and language of our messages right is so important. I have three post-it notes on my screen which say ‘SUPPORT, IMPROVEMENT and PERMANANCE.’ This has really helped keep my focus on creating a clear and consistent narrative; we know where we’ve been, and we know where we need to get to. Alongside the post-its is a stock photo of some children in a playground – I keep this as a visual reminder that children are at the heart of everything we do.

For me, it’s important to keep evolving our internal comms. Last year, we worked with staff, partners and children and young people to develop a vision. This was a positive experience but also a challenge in terms of how we bring this to life and ensure it becomes part of what our 1,600+ members of staff see every day when the majority of our staff are working from home. We had the vision animated and produced a sticker to go on the front of everyone’s laptop, so they now see this every day.

Knowing that our comms is making a difference and we can evidence this is very important. We ran a staff survey back in April to really gauge what our teams thought. This wasn’t about asking ‘do you read or engage with our comms?’ because most of the systems we use can answer this. It was more around ‘have our communications helped you feel more informed and connected and has this helped improve the culture of our department?’ The response from staff was largely positive.

In terms of what’s next, we are planning a face-to-face staff conference at the end of September to help keep everyone well-connected and hear directly from children and young people. We’re also setting up a comms champions group.

Someone recently asked me when I thought I’d be done with the internal comms. My response was you should never be done. It should change and flex to what is needed and what is right for your staff. If you don’t invest in your internal comms, how can you expect to have an informed and engaged workforce who are well-equipped to work with the people who use your service?

Sam Boulton, Communication and Engagement Lead – Children First, West Sussex County Council


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