'An analogue system in a digital age': Government comms is failing, ex-No.10 adviser Lee Cain says

“The day-to-day news management has been surrendered to special advisers," former director of communications writes
Cain said poor communications systems meant the pubic received "mixed messages" during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images

“Inexperienced staff and unclear lines of responsibility”, as well as uncontrollable leaking, were to blame for the mixed messages the public received during the coronavirus pandemic, No.10’s former comms director has claimed. 

Lee Cain, who was director of communications under Boris Johnson in 2019 and 2020, also said in a report that claims the Government Communication Service is “failing in many of its most basic functions”. He blamed these failings on comms system’s size, lack of clear lines of command and “inability to understand and implement modern communication methods”.

In a report for the Institute for Government, Cain, who was a special adviser not a civil servant as comms director, said the “hub” system operated during the pandemic – where a core group of comms professionals within the Cabinet Office supported the response – was a failure. On top of inexperience and leaks, he said “inconsistent” policy development was to blame.

He said a “dramatic cut” in comms staff across government, in an attempt to increase the quality and concentration of skills and make messages more cohesive. 

“The vast majority of Whitehall employees working in these fields do not have an adequate understanding of strategic communications or campaigns. An example of this was the poor first iteration of the Covid campaign, which had to be scrapped and restarted with outside expertise – individuals who really understood strategic communications and campaigns,” he said.

Urging the government to follow through on plans to centralise comms operations under a single-employer model, he added: “The system would benefit from real expertise in the new centralised GCS, stripping back the number of campaigns and staff, and improving the training for those continuing their careers.”

He said government comms is operating a “predominantly analogue system in a digital age and that media relations skills have “atrophied” over the last few years, despite the government’s focus on presenting favourable lines to the press each day and rebutting negative news stories.

“The day-to-day news management has been surrendered to special advisers, who are often less well-versed in policy than permanent civil servants and are limited to two or three per department, unlike departmental press office operations whose staffing numbers can reach into the hundreds,” he wrote.

“It is not uncommon to meet national newspaper journalists who have not had a single call from a government press officer in a year or more – and most press officers no longer see engagement with the media as a core part of their role.”

Leaks about policies and internal discussions have created problems for the government throughout the coronavirus pandemic and before that, Brexit preparations among many other subjects. Special advisers – Cain and his contemporary in government, Johnson’s former political adviser Dominic Commings – have been blamed for briefing out information to newspapers ahead of official announcements, as well as leaks of confidential meetings and documents that have embarrassed ministers.

Cain said he did not want to criticise individual professionals, noting that he had worked alongside “many press officers whose talent and dedication was unquestionable and should be lauded” while he was a spad at the Department for Food and Rural Affairs.

“Those who worked in No.10 during the height of the pandemic are some of the most dedicated public servants I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside. I remain incredibly grateful for their expertise and support during such a challenging period,” he said.

“The system as it currently operates, however, is failing those individuals.”

Staff cuts and pay rises

To fix the failings he has identified, Cain said the government should follow through with the strategy put in place while he was comms director to reform GCS.

The plan included moving all comms staff under a single employer, GCS, which should coordinate communications efforts. It also included cutting staff numbers, capping press offices within departments at 30 to 40 staff apiece.

The plan has been adjusted since Cain was in government, and precise details such as how many comms staff will remain in departments and across government overall are as yet unclear.

Cain also called for the balance of responsibilities between press officers and spads to be “​​reset”, with each department’s head of news taking on a second role as official spokesperson for the department. “This would allow special advisers to focus more on political matters and allow departments to provide a better service for journalists,” he said.

Other suggestions included setting up a dedicated broadcast team within each department, and using new technology to produce and distribute content.

Cain said the bulk of the “dramatic” headcount reduction should come from outside press offices, enabling a “return to the primary function of the communications team to run an efficient media operation, building relationships with the media, placing positive stories that reinforce the government narrative and quickly rebutting inaccurate stories”.

Meanwhile, he said pay for those remaining should be “vastly improved”, especially for civil servants in the most demanding roles in No.10 and the Treasury. 

Cain has 'overlooked lack of honesty and transparency'

Responding to Cain’s suggestions in an accompanying statement, the IfG said Cain is right to call for a stronger GCS, but warned against putting “too much weight on command and control”.

“Too much central management risks politicising GCS,” the think tank added.

And it said the former No.10 adviser had overlooked ministers’ role in communicating with the public, and the need to get a grip on inconsistent or untrue messaging coming from politicians.

“Cain overlooks the damage of a lack of honesty and transparency, especially by letting ministers off the hook, and gives too little time to underlying problems with the way policy is made,” the think tank said, noting that improving comms should be about improving the quality of information released as well as the means by which it is made public.

“Restoring public confidence is straightforward if sometimes uncomfortable for those giving the messages. Ministers are entitled to present their actions positively but must avoid overclaiming. They should show leadership by being honest and acting with integrity, and make it clear that they expect everyone working with them to do the same,” the IfG said.

“Official government communications in particular should not be about spinning headlines or shaping the political narrative. There have been too many cases – most recently the Home Office’s response to a story about the treatment of Afghan refugees or its initial criticism of ‘activist lawyers’ for frustrating immigration deportations, and the Foreign Office’s statement about Dominic Raab’s phone calls during the Afghan crisis – where government resources and Twitter accounts push political or unsubstantiated ‘lines to take’ rather than sharing factual and impartial information.”

A government spokesperson called Cain’s claims “misleading".

"Government Communication Service is internationally recognised as a world leader in public communications demonstrated by our work across the globe in over 25 countries,” they said.

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