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News > Alumni Spotlight > Alex Aiken, Executive Director, Government Communication

Alex Aiken, Executive Director, Government Communication

"I think that one of the qualities I've learned over my career is that of resilience, the ability to accept that success takes time and requires attention to detail, hard work and a bit of luck."

Current Job Title /  Employer 

I work for the UK Government, as a senior civil servant in Whitehall, and have done so since 2012. I'm responsible for media and marketing activity for the Deputy Prime Minister, the Cabinet Office and for international and National Security communication. My formal title is Executive Director, Government Communication. That means I'm part of the leadership of the Government Communication Service which is the Civil Service profession responsible for the major advertising campaigns, working with the media, internal communication and digital communication. 

DAOS Class Of? 

I was at Owen’s between 1978 and 1985. I was part of the ‘N’ Form, who were from ‘out of county’. We had a lot of pupils from Barnet, but also from Islington and other parts of North London. It made for quite a dynamic and opinionated group. It was a very different school from the hugely successful Owen’s of today. It was still coming to terms with the move from Potters Bar and finding its feet. There were some quite interesting disciplinary challenges for the teachers, with some of the pupils, and some parts of the school felt pretty thrown together. And we were watching the M25 being built.

Brief description of your path after Owen’s

I was slightly surprised to go to University, with an A, B and D grade in Economics, History and English Literature but graduated from the London School of Economics with a BSc Econ in 1988. Over the past 30 years I've worked in communications for a political party, a leading local authority and for the past dozen years in central government. I've stayed in these jobs for a reasonable amount of time, because I feel that the more you know about an organisation and its work the more you can contribute, and the more you deepen your own learning, that in turn helps you to do well in a job.

How your path lead you to where you are now?

I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do after school and university. I had a number of temporary jobs, from working on Smithfield Meat Market, in retail and as a researcher in Parliament. I became interested in public relations because I was fascinated by the way that the media shapes public debate and that developed into a wider career in communication because I saw the power of information to change lives for the better by helping people make more informed decisions. Within local and central government good communication is absolutely essential for building trust, by showing how you deliver on your promises. Communication was an area I was interested in at school where I edited the magazine we put together for the Sixth Form ‘1613’ social club.

What skills or attributes did Owen’s inspire in you? 

Owens inspired a desire to learn thoroughly, be curious and a bit rebellious, because the Staff encouraged us to think. We had brilliant teachers including Tom Espley, Kathy Farrow and Alan Amos who genuinely inspired us to be as good as we could be and to also to think for ourselves. They really cared about our learning - as teachers do today - and that widened our horizons and probably made us more innovative and determined to do well than we would have been with less committed teachers. 

How did that help you to get to where you are now?

The focus on being the best that you can be has remained with me. It’s certainly the approach I've taken to my work and you find that when you're in meetings with senior politicians, they expect the best advice, the most effective project delivery and unless you really strive to deliver the highest standards, you're in danger of disappointing yourself and others. I am proud that the UK Government Communication Service is known around the world for its work, and has supported allied governments in around 50 countries to improve their work; this is because people respect our expertise. 

I also think Owens taught me to think differently, and innovate, to try and change the way things are done. Often you find in organisations that people have done things a certain way for too long and constructive challenge can help to get a better result and get you credit with your colleagues. I've had the privilege of working with six Prime Ministers and all of them wanted new ideas and to understand how a different approach could deliver results. The GREAT Britain campaign, which is the largest and most successful government trade and tourism initiative of its type, is an example of that innovative approach

And I've also always thought of Dame Alice Owens as an ethical school, where people were as good as their word, respectful to one another and told the truth. In all the roles I worked on this has been important, particularly where the growth of disinformation has challenged people's understanding of what is right. As a senior civil servant we are bound by a code of conduct to be impartial and honest and objective, and these are values that then, as now, were part of the school environment.

Any words of wisdom for our current students?

We had a great time at school but it was only the start of the journey. It was an important foundation, after university but any career will involve setbacks and missed opportunities as well as successes. I think that one of the qualities I've learned over my career is that of resilience, the ability to accept that success takes time and requires attention to detail, hard work and a bit of luck. So knowing how to deal with the mistakes and defeats and learning from them, and having the courage to continue is as important as celebrating success. 

And I continue to meet up with lifelong friends I made at Owens over 40 years ago. Among them are teachers, entrepreneurs, accountants and doctors.  We continue to have a great time together, at concerts, dinners and drinks and retelling old stories, hearing new ones and learning how we have each tackled all the triumphs and trials that life brings.

Favourite Owen’s memory?

Visitation and the Beer Money ceremony at the end of term were always great fun. But my favourite memories would be on the sports field playing for both the First XI and 1st XV. I played for Old Owens Football Club after school and now Chair an amateur football club - Westminster Wanderers FC. I think it's particularly important for people in  demanding jobs to have an outlet, and for me that is a love of sport which first developed on the fields of Hertfordshire, and inspired by Ian Breeze’s encouragement - even when I wasn't that confident in my own abilities as a player!

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