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Move with the times – in defence of WhatsApp in government

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Move with the times – in defence of WhatsApp in government

Former minister and current member of the House of Lords argues that the UK government needs to move with the times and embrace new communications tools such as WhatsApp

James Bethell

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Published: 09 Jun 2022

There are two billion active WhatsApp users worldwide. It’s the most popular instant messaging platform because it is so useful. Workers and families have driven the growth. It’s used in hospital wards, fire stations, garrisons and school staffrooms up and down the country.

This has not been a top-down edict. This a revolution from the shopfloor, the school gate, the nursing station and, at times, the Private Office in the UK civil service. Where businesses and government have failed to create the systems that let people work effectively together, people have taken matters into their own hands and embraced new technology to do the job better and quicker.

I embrace that revolution.

Certainly, we could not have responded to the pandemic as effectively without modern communications, and I include Teams, Slack and Zoom in this.

When the virus hit our shores, we had to massively scale up our public health services, which led to a sudden and urgent need for collaboration between people who had not worked together, across silos, across agencies and across departments.

If you had gone to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) headquarters in this time you would have seen people from Army logistics, the intelligence services, consultancies like Deloitte, Cabinet Office procurement, Public Health England (PHE) epidemiologists, NHS clinicians, volunteers and myriad agencies. They were fighting hard to stand up testing capacity, support our hospitals and social care, roll out the vaccine programme, and so on. They certainly were not all on the same email server.

To give you one vivid example, take the hotel quarantine borders project. It required a phenomenal creativity to stitch together a system based on flight booking, hotel room management systems, visa requirements, airport check-in stations, passenger landing forms and the cyber security team, among others.

This required collaboration across the Home Office, transport, DHSC, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), including agencies that had hardly ever touched each other, working from home and using banks of contract staff.

We wouldn’t have had the agility to do that in time by email and phone. Teams and WhatsApp were absolutely critical to standing up an entirely new service in just six weeks – an achievement that has won awards.

To summarise, messaging and video apps were essential in three key ways: to forge collaboration between teams; to share up-to-date information and work towards agile responses; and to encourage creativity by sharing ideas. 

It was the same picture right across government, NHS and public services.

There is no way we could have moved so far and so quickly if we had adhered to the old ways of doing things. After becoming minister, I needed an NHS email address so I could read essential dashboards. It took six months. When I made this point to a predecessor, they were shocked. “You managed to get an NHS email address? I am staggered! I never got that far.”

And it is not just at times of emergency that government services need more creativity, agility and collaboration. The challenges our country faces are increasingly complex and the responses, like the Childhood Obesity Strategy, requires cross-cutting solutions and better working practices.

I recognise that new technologies often create suspicion. Napoleon worried a nationwide system of semaphores would encourage revolution and restricted its use to the military.

Through the ages, people who fear conspiracies often invest those fears into technology. This is true today.

There are those who worry there were conspiracies in government in the pandemic. And when they could not find the evidence for their theories, despite exhaustive searches by the authorities, they assumed it had been destroyed. This is a very dangerous mentality. Just because the conspiracy theorists do not find what they expected, it does not mean their conspiracies were right all along. Quite the opposite. And we should not prioritise policy-making around their false assumptions.

I also recognise many Westminster types feel WhatsApp is mostly useful for cycling gossip and tips. But that’s not most people’s experience. I have four children, four school gate groups and a wild swimming club that I couldn’t manage without my very square, ungossipy WhatsApp groups.

There are those who think the very purpose of communication is to record events for future analysis. That’s not right. Most communication is done to achieve complex objectives. I am therefore sceptical that every tiny exchange is worth keeping. I would remind everyone that the Freedom of Information Act was first drafted at the end of the last century before email was widespread and before instant messaging and video conferencing had been invented, and so needs a serious update.

Where some people fear an erosion of document-keeping standards, I see a massive mission creep to take advantage of the explosion of digital communications to try to capture the sort of ephemeral dialogue that would have previously happened by a water cooler or on a Post-It, and without investing the capability to analyse or contextualise what is being captured.





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Confessions of an in-house creative strategist on feeling unfulfilled, difficulty in returning to agencies as the ‘pay is less’

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Confessions of an in-house creative strategist on feeling unfulfilled, difficulty in returning to agencies as the ‘pay is less’

The war for talent between agencies and brands’ in-house agencies has cooled. Even so, for adland talent who’ve made the move in-house, some say they are looking to go back to agencies after feeling creatively stifled. It’s not the easiest strategy to execute.

In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from an in-house creative strategist about their experience, why they want to go agency-side now and how pay is keeping them from doing so.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s the in-house experience like?

I’ve been in-house for about a year. It’s very one-sided. The difference between agency and in-house is that with agencies, there [are] a lot of opinions and ideas [outside of the brand message] that go into creative. With in-house, you have the brand’s message and all creative is reflective of the brand’s message. With in-house, regardless of trends in the market, it’s a lot of ‘we’re going to stick to this one way of doing things’ mentality. It’s a lot of opinions about what the creative should be based on what it has been before. It makes it hard to introduce something fresh. It makes it hard to hire or be a new hire. If you’re not actually going to adhere to advice from new hires, what’s the point in getting new people? Are you just bringing people on board for a second opinion? That’s what it feels like.

Sounds like you don’t have the creative control you desire.

It feels like more of a second opinion role than to get something to manage or control. [Where I am now] it feels like we’re leaning more into what [our strategy] used to be than thinking about what we could be. That’s a big issue with in-house. With agencies, like I said, there’s a lot more trial and error. With in-house, a lot more of this is what we’re doing, these are the funds we have and this is what has worked in the past. In reality, a lot of what worked in the past, when you put it back into the market, it’s not going to work anymore. 

Why do you think it’s more challenging to get to a new creative strategy in-house?

With agencies, you have multiple perspectives. You’re working on multiple brands. You can see something working for another brand and talk to your client about it. You can pivot. You have the background and perspective to [pitch that pivot]. When you’re in-house, you only have the knowledge of your brand and what’s working for you. 

Are you looking to go back to agencies? 

Personally, I am looking to go from in-house to agency but I get paid a lot more being in-house than what I’ve been offered at agencies. I’ve been in interviews with agencies where they’re telling me that I’ll be learning [programs I already know how to use] so that’s why the pay is less than what it should be. There are agencies I’ve interviewed with who ask me to move to New York for less than what I make now and make that work. [With inflation,] there’s no reason why salaries aren’t also increasing. 

So you’d like to make the jump creatively but it’s hard when the compensation isn’t up to what in-house offers? 

It’s hard. I’ve been lowballed, too. They’ll post a salary for a position, go through the interviews and then offer less than what’s listed on the salary description. What was the point of putting the salary range there? I feel like people are putting salary ranges on job descriptions just to attract people with the experience that they are looking for but by the time they make the offer, it’s not what they said it would be. It’s offensive.

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