18 September 2023

Britain is plagued by ‘sitcom governance’ – a lesson in storytelling could fix it


Britain has been overtaken by ‘sitcom governance’. I’m not talking about ministerial pratfalls or dodgy gags at the despatch box – but rather Whitehall’s apparent embrace of the Seinfeld mantra, ‘no hugging, no learning’. 

Much like your favourite TV comedy, every week brings a new set of challenges and a new goal to pursue – but this series has no clear sense of direction or overarching story. As a result, we all suffer. Britain’s chronic problems are reduced to week-long focuses. New ‘initiatives’ are quickly announced and even more swiftly forgotten. 

Recently it was ‘NHS week’. Before that was ‘small boats week’. The week before that was ‘energy week’. Let’s not forget ‘crime week’, which coincided with the Partygate revelations about the government breaking the law itself. The British public aren’t stupid. They know that these are chronic issues, and talking about them for a week before moving on to something else insults the public’s intelligence.

When the press moves on, Britain’s biggest problems remain, even if the national narrative changes after a week. 

The solution to our short-termism lies in improving government storytelling. We need to get better at talking about our problems so that we can get better at talking about (and then enacting) solutions. But this will require an improved system of hiring and maintaining government communicators.

The government knows what the root causes of Britain’s biggest problems are. Officials know we need to build more houses, fix social care, get the NHS onto more sustainable footing and build better infrastructure. But policymakers are paralysed by a consensus that these solutions are ‘politically unfeasible’ because voters are unable to understand the trade-offs.

But this is deeply patronising. The public can see eye-watering housing prices and electricity bills. They are feeling the cost of living crisis and use Britain’s broken public infrastructure daily. Voters are invested in these issues and want to learn more about how we can solve them.

This is where government communication needs to adjust. Effective messaging is about telling a story. Even if the government wants to stick to its current ‘episodic’ style, it ought to be progressing its larger narrative. Start talking about the issues people care about, and let the public know what really needs to be done to fix them and why.

However, good content must be coupled with excellent delivery. Imbuing strategy and purpose into every message takes skill, and unfortunately, the government needs to get better at keeping talented people.

Right now the average pay for government employees cannot compete with the private sector. The pay system needs to pivot so government hires fewer communicators and pays them better – that way we ensure that we are getting top-quality storytellers. We also need to reform career progression to provide meaningful paths forward for talented communicators. We need talented communicators at the very top, deciding and shaping strategy, and to give them freedom to explore and innovate.

This may sound like an impossible challenge, but there is already a great deal of potential if you know where to look. Earlier this year, the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) created a set of clean and catchy videos, including a Q&A with James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary. These videos were engaging, but also conveyed the department’s core messages – they are a prime example of good government communication.

Across the road, HMT (His Majesty’s Treasury) has also been innovating. Last November, it became the first government department in the world to create its own Discord server (Discord is a digital platform for online communities and groups to chat on). Since then, over 160,000 people have joined the HMT Discord to receive news about the economy and what HMT is doing. 

This is a great example of a department  finding ways to speak to a notoriously apolitical demographic – young people. With 65% of Discord users between the ages of 16 and 34, the HMT Discord is a step in the right direction towards getting young people more invested in politics and the economy.

While these examples inspire some hope, they are exceptions to the rule. Not all departments can rely on getting lucky with talent like HMT and FCDO. Moreover, many departments wouldn’t even be able to be as bold as HMT was with its initiative. 

Reforming how we treat and hire talented communicators cuts to the root of the problem. We need an integrated government communication service that can hire top talent across departments, helping the policymakers re-learn this core political skill. If we want to move away from a political culture that makes Yes Minister look less like a satire than a documentary, we need to put a pause on ‘sitcom governance’. 

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Alex Petropoulos is a policy analyst and political commentator with Young Voices UK. He writes for City AM, Conservative Home, politics.co.uk, and the American Spectator and appears on Times Radio.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.