Dave Penman: Civil service media rule change was surprising and confusing

Changes to civil service media rules dreamt up in Whitehall look very different to officials on the frontline, argues FDA union general secretary Dave Penman

By Dave Penman

20 Apr 2015

I would imagine that most civil servants busily delivering public services don’t give much thought to the Civil Service Code on a daily basis. The code, which effectively enshrines the basic principles of impartiality and integrity in the civil service, was perhaps something you were told about on your induction course many moons ago. Few, I imagine, recite the text each morning before clocking on.

The code doesn’t change very often, which is probably right as it’s meant as a general code of ethics, not something that should need tinkering with frequently. Which made it all the more surprising, then, that the government should decide to change the code just a few days short of the dissolution of parliament. What’s more, the change made – requiring civil servants who have any contact with the media in an official capacity to seek ministerial authorisation – appeared unnecessary and superfluous.

“Eh?” was probably the most common response of civil servants who became aware of the change, if indeed they were made aware. “Ministerial authorisation? Seems a bit OTT.”
And really, I couldn’t agree more. All civil servants recognise that when they are contacting the media, or indeed are contacted by the media, they are not acting in a personal capacity, but rather on behalf of the department, agency, NDPB or whatever employer they work for.

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In a modern public service, that will increasingly be a part of their job. The media, in whatever guise, is a vehicle to communicate with the public and most of this contact is at a local level in towns and cities across the country. Whether that’s a prosecutor answering questions outside of court, or a job centre manager responding to an enquiry from the local newspaper, it’s part and parcel of delivering open, transparent public services.

And, as a civil servant, that also means responding on behalf of the government of the day – after all, that’s what being a civil servant is all about. If you’re unsure about that, guess where you can look to find out… that’s right, the Civil Service Code, because it’s in there already. I quote: “You must serve the government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this code, no matter what your own political beliefs are.”

I don’t know many civil servants who need reminding of that, so when the code was changed in this way it begs the question: why was it necessary? It raises any number of queries or concerns, where previously there were none: why is the change happening? Has something changed – or do I need to do something different?

Many civil servants don’t even have a minister – they’re called non-ministerial departments for a reason – and most rarely see a member of the SCS, never mind the ministerial team. All of this adds to the confusion and just reeks of some authoritarian change. In the absence of context or guidance immediately following the change, few could complain if civil servants’ default position was to clam up.

Ministerial authorisation – whatever the practical arrangements that may be put in place for block authority – feels different, more ominous and bureaucratic. Is this change likely to make civil servants more, or less, open and transparent? Where does this sit with whistleblowing, or sensitivities about political comment during purdah? Transparency and open government is not simply about detail or procedure, it’s also about the culture that is developed over many years in an organisation.

Now I am sure that none of this confusion was the intention of those behind the change, but any modification that then has to be caveated this extensively should probably not have been made in the first place.

I suspect that what feels like a minor change, strengthening accountability from the perspective of Whitehall, looks very different to the thousands of civil servants who are in contact with the media on a day-to-day basis as part of delivering key public services.

My civil service career was mainly spent in a benefits office in Cumbernauld, a town 15 miles north of Glasgow. So when a minster or some other bright spark is trying to convince me of the merit of their latest initiative for the civil service, I try to think how this would be explained to the 25-year-old me, managing the counter at Cumbernauld’s benefits office. Would it be relevant? Would it make sense? Or would it look like it was dreamt up in Whitehall, a place many miles and possibly light years away from my reality?

Maybe that’s a simplistic approach, but I can’t help feeling that if someone had perhaps just considered that before embarking on this change, or perhaps asked the views of those on the receiving end, fewer hares would be running and a lot less time would have been spent explaining, reassuring and adding caveats. 

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