By Professor Jim Macnamara PhD, FAMI, CPM, FAMEC, FPRIA, Professor of Public Communication, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney. Visiting Professor, London School of Economics and Political Science, Media & Communications Department

Like the ‘manna from heaven’ – the food that reportedly fell from heaven to feed the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt – the UK government has delivered a veritable feast for researchers and communication professionals. None more so than this researcher who arrived in London in mid-June to attend the 2016 AMEC Summit on Measurement 15–16 June and settle in for a six months sabbatical studying UK government-citizen engagement and listening.

Just seven days after the AMEC Summit, the UK conducted its referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) and, as it now well-known, voted to make one of the most historic and far-reaching changes to the nation’s international relations since it joined the EU 40 years ago.

What is most significant in the context of research and communication is that the 52:48% vote for Brexit shocked the Conservative government, which had conducted a national campaign to convince voters to ‘remain’ in the EU, as well as the Labor Opposition that also supported ‘remain’. Furthermore, even former London Mayor turned MP, Boris Johnson, who led the ‘leave’ campaign, was visibly shocked at a news conference following the vote count.

How could this be the case given that the UK Government Communication Service employs more than 4,000 professional communication staff across its 17 major departments and various government agencies, as well as hundreds of ‘special advisers’ working with Ministers, 1,000 plus social researchers and analysts in policy development units, and spends millions of pounds with research companies including Ipsos MORI, TNS, GfK NOP, the NatCen Social Research, The Reputation Institute, and others?

Just a few weeks before the referendum, the 2016 British Social Attitudes survey reported that 60% of Britons were in favour of continuing Britain’s membership of the EU and only 30% supported Britain’s withdrawal. So much for polls! Something was terribly wrong in relation to research and public communication.

Within one month of starting my research working with the UK Cabinet Office and several of its major departments, as well as enjoying life as a Visiting Professor at London School of Economics and Political Science, the UK had a new Prime Minister, 13 new Ministers, and was facing a major restructuring of its economy, trade relations, international relations, and its national identity. There was also a whole new department established at 70 Whitehall – the Department for Exiting the EU, commonly known as DEx EU.

On taking up her appointment as the UK’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May stated frankly that the Brexit vote clearly demonstrated that the government was out of touch with the citizens of the UK. In a speech to launch her campaign to become leader on 11 July 2016, Ms May acknowledged “a gaping chasm between wealthy London and the rest of the country” – a message that the she reiterated in her first official statement as Prime Minister on 13 July 2016.

After spending three months in the UK doing research on government-citizen engagement as an extension of The Organisational Listening Project , I have seen this “gaping chasm” first hand in Whitehall and in travelling up and down the country to the north of England and Scotland. In the space available here I can only reflect on a few of the preliminary findings of The Organisational Listening Project Stage 2, but here are a few observations.

  • Politicians listen, but often to the wrong people and influences. Most remain obsessed with traditional media headlines and press clippings and are entrenched in a political party ‘machine’. Traditional media live in the same ‘Westminster bubble’ as politicians (and share falling popularity), and the three major UK political parties represent little more than 1% of voters. So there’s the start of a problem.
  • Government departments and agencies do a lot of research as well as public consultation and process enormous amounts of correspondence (often 60,000–70,000 letters and e-mails a year). But data are not analysed in depth and not shared in many cases. Vital public feedback in surveys, focus groups, and stakeholder interviews sits on hard disks and servers behind firewalls inaccessible in many cases to all except those who commissioned them. Stakeholders’ and citizens’ comments expressed in public consultation, correspondence, and complaints are responded to individually but not analysed for patterns and common themes because civil servants lack tools and skills to analyse large volumes of unstructured textual data. Millions of words from key stakeholders and publics remain unanalysed.
  • The Organisational Listening Project, which is continuing, has found that, on average, 80% of the communication resources of organisations are devoted to distributing their messages (i.e., speaking) and sometimes up to 95%. Despite claims of two-way communication, dialogue, and engagement, most organisations listen poorly due to systemic and institutional barriers such as those noted above.

In the spirit of the Israelites, we should say thank you for this manna for research and strategic communication study, but recognise the long and hard journey ahead.