Reforming Government Communication… Again

A plan developed at the heart of the UK government to reform government communication – again – is raising a number of questions, with PR Week asking if the plan should be seen as a power grab, or as a means to rationalising management of government communication.

As one of the plan’s architects and a sometime student of history, chief advisor to the UK Prime Minister Dominic Cummings is probably well aware that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The plan may well illustrate this idea working through in practice.

In the plan, signed off by the Prime Minister, “communication teams will be line-managed by the Cabinet Office instead of individual departments under a new ‘single employer model’ developed by Alex Aiken, the executive director for government communications”.

So many concerns have been raised by the plan that the Government Communication Service had to prepare a 14-page document to answer them.

This suggested “the single employer model aims to ensure better coordination, greater efficiency and effectiveness and unified, excellent professional standards and practice”.

The model is presented as new, but it is one that has tried and tested in other countries, such as Canada, where governments at federal and provincial levels operate through structures similar to those in Westminster. In Canada, the single employer model was in play as long ago as the 1970s and its benefits and drawbacks have been thoroughly exposed.

In managing government communication, there are choices relating to more or less centralisation of control and coordination.  The approach now proposed in the UK is one involving greater centralisation, a choice which allows greater political control of communication, but which brings with it a number of limitations on the effectiveness of communication.

On past experience, it does not, over time, lead to credibility, better communication, or more effective use of communication in policy development and delivery.  And, as time passes, centralised control has to be relaxed, to allow for more better communication by departments and across the whole of government.

The UK has recent experience of the consequences of centralizing control over government communication, under the Blair government in the late 1990s.  The process then led to a breakdown in trust between government, the media and the public.

The breakdown was laid bare in the 2003 Phillis Review of Government Communication (made necessary by the very loss of trust that it described).

Trust in the UK government has been diminished over recent months, as the UK government has tried to meet the challenges of containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Its efforts to communicate during the pandemic have been criticised on a number of grounds.

Proposed changes to the management of government communication may prove dysfunctional from the outset:

  • The changes show a lack of appreciation of what is involved in modern public communication, which depends on developed capability in listening, ‘audience insight’ (a term much favoured by the current Government Communication Service), and abilities to take account of the interests of stakeholder groups in developing relationships with them. The new approach described in the plan will be mainly concerned with rebuttal and defence of government positions.
  • Communication so obviously controlled from the centre will be less credible and trustworthy, as it will be seen as tied to political objectives rather than prepared and delivered with public interests in mind, where political objectives and the public interest are not, in the current environment, seen as always coinciding
  • Over time, departments will chafe at lack of resources in the key areas of communication – the plan calls for a reduction in staff numbers from around 4000 communicators, to around 30 to each department, for around 20 departments – and will try to bypass central arrangements, trying to appoint their own staff to carry out communication work. An example of how this is done now this emerged in recent weeks from the Department of International Trade, in a plan to recruit a special chief media officer, rebuttal and trade relations.

The changes also create difficulties for the smaller number of communicators who will remain in place.

There is, it seems, a limited understanding of what their role involves. The Financial Times July 2 reports a number 10 official saying: “The government is fortunate to have some of the best communications professionals in the world but it is very difficult to defend there now being more than 4,000 spin-doctors on the payroll. People want an efficient and transparent government which delivers on their priorities and provides value for money — and that is what the PM is going to deliver.”

So, are the current group of communicators all spin doctors, or are a number of them ‘the best communication professionals in the world?’ Of the whole group, how many fit in to the ‘best’ category? And how are they identified? In what way does having numbers of communications professionals in place work against efficient and transparent government? For a government such as the UK’s central government, what is an optimal number of communicators?

The smaller number of communication practitioners remaining in place will have the demands of their roles compounded by the attitudes implied in these comments, and others which have suggested that their role will be mainly defensive.

The single employer model creates conflict, between the centre and client departments, and role conflicts around the role of the practitioner in providing service to client departments. In this, are they responsible to client departments and their management, or to the central single employer, the Cabinet Office?

The conflicts set up by the model work against its efficiency, and the effectiveness of communication.

It is surprising to see the Government Communication Service, set up in its current form to deal with earlier failings in government communication, being reworked in the new plans. Part of the problem with the new plan is that it has been conceived by amateurs, when it comes to understanding and managing communication. The plan, in all probability, is being imposed over the objections of professionals in government communication.

In July 2016, the then minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock spoke about future plans for the civil service workforce, saying: “Gone are the days of the gifted amateur. Today’s world is too complex and demands are too high.”

Unfortunately for government communication within and by the UK’s central government, it seems that the amateurs have taken over.

The consequences will follow over time.

Dr Jon White, FCIPR, is a consultant and visiting professor at Henley Business School and Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC).

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