Mixed messaging: Lee Cain's proposals to reform government communications need more clarity

Kay Hender, head of communications at the FDA union, argues that Lee Cain has identified some of the challenges faced by the Government Communications Service, but his proposed solutions are contradictory and could make things worse
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By Kay Hender

07 Sep 2021

There are some interesting points to Lee Cain’s Institute for Government guest paper on modernising government communications. Cain – or ‘Caino’ as Dominic Cummings reportedly calls him – has eschewed his and Cummings’ shouty stereotypes by putting together a thoughtful paper with a respected thinktank. But look more carefully and the Caino of old is still there.

Cain’s point about the need for a consistent message is a good one, but he ignores the key caveat that for it work, there needs to actually be a consistent message. The issue the current government has had is that the message from the top has been constantly changing, as Matt Lucas’s Boris Johnson impression from last year testifies.

Cain’s opinion over the need to keep up-to-date with the latest communication methods is also a fair one. There are always newer platforms and software that we need to master. Our mantra at the FDA (well, the one I force on the comms team) is that we need to be wherever our members get their news – from social media to print, via broadcast, across the political spectrum from Left Foot Forward to GB news. The same clearly applies to the government and how it wants to communicate with its citizens. But expertise is required to cover all of these options and it would be impossible for any comms team to do all of them in-house – particularly with the 75% staff cuts across government communications that have been suggested, which I’ll come back to. Trusted, skilled freelancers should be seen as an asset, not a waste of money.

Cain also focuses on external communications, to the public and media. As IfG’s Alex Thomas rightly states, internal communications within an organisation can be just as important to ensure a consistent message. Cain’s paper is mainly written in terms of what will be done to government communications, without consideration for communicating with those involved – about overarching plans for change, or updates within departments. I’d expect most members of the public to think that press work is the main load of a communications professional, but I expected a bit more from Caino.

I agree that, as Cain states, the public expects the government to speak with one voice on over-arching issues. But this goes back to Michael Gove’s opinion about experts – it’s necessary to have comms professionals in each department who are aware of particular issues within their remit. Then when an ‘expert’ spokesperson is needed for a media appearance – on transport, or the environment, or whatever else – they’ll know which minister has their finger closest to that particular button. If this is all run centrally, it risks taking far too long to find out who is best placed to speak and is available. We’ve found the key to our message being reported is making sure it’s succinct, quotable and importantly, that we’re quick to respond. Control from a distance is never conducive to the latter.

Cain also accuses civil service leaders of attempting to “guard and prize their own fiefdoms”, keeping “the media spoils of a policy announcement” and “viewing their own department’s needs as more important than the government’s”. While in-fighting is never a good look, the danger with a centralised team is that the centre becomes the sole focus – lots of press releases on the work of the Cabinet Office and Treasury while the good work of DfT, DWP, Defra and many others is neglected. Thankfully, the Government Communication Service has now determined that departments will keep their own comms teams.

Cain’s figures feel like taking a guillotine to a daisy – slashing when a trim would likely have sufficed

Now let’s talk numbers. Cain proposes reducing the number of comms officers across Whitehall from ‘8,000 to fewer than 2,000’. Now I know many love to compare the private and public sector, but I think you’d struggle to find any head of a business who would agree to a more-than-75% cut in staff and still expect their company to run as efficiently or successfully. In any organisation – particularly one as vast as the civil service – there are almost certainly improvements that can be made in terms of training and staff numbers. But Cain’s figures feel like taking a guillotine to a daisy – slashing when a trim would likely have sufficed.

Throughout the paper, Cain wants to have his cake and eat it. He sees the solution as “stripping back the number of campaigns and staff, and improving the training for those continuing their careers”, but provides no insight as to how this would actually happen. Who decides which three out of four comms staff are leaving and how does this training take place – bespoke or wholesale? He also mentions civil servants being “afraid of picking up the phone” to journalists and his wishes for then to share the load of “special advisers… overworked to the point of exhaustion”. While the Civil Service Code requires “all civil servants to seek ministerial authorisation for any contact with the media in an official capacity”, they are always going to be more wary than a special adviser about speaking with the media. This wording was introduced by then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude - the same Francis Maude who was recently asked by the government to review the progress of civil service reform.  I’m not sure it’s fair to accuse civil servants of being afraid to speak to journalists while simultaneously tying their hands in doing so freely.  

Ultimately Lee Cain needs to decide - whether he actually looking to improve the way the government communicates, or whether Caino of old is just looking to blame and create chaos, without actually providing any long-term solutions.

Kay Hender is the head of communications at the FDA union

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