Centralised comms function ‘won’t be in place before April’

Union says project team briefing suggests any staff changes will be in the second half of 2021

By Jim Dunton

30 Nov 2020

Controversial proposals to create a centralised government communications function to replace departments’ in-house teams are many months away from being enacted, according to the civil service’s biggest union.

PCS said it had met with the team tasked with delivering the new comms structure – a pet project of prime minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings – and had been told that no new function would go live until the 2021-22 financial year.

“The project team envisages that any new communication organisation will not be in place before 1 April 2021, and that there won’t be any staff changes until the second half of next year,” the union said.

The new communications regime announced in July suggested that departments would be limited to a maximum of 30 comms staff with all other work handled by the centralised function, run along single-employer lines.

At the time it was said that four new director generals would be appointed to oversee government communications centrally, but that there would be a lower headcount of communications staff across government. There are currently around 4,000 communications professionals working across more than 20 departments.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review last week confirmed that the comms shakeup was very much ongoing and said the result would “provide more effective, efficient, unified communication to deliver the government’s priorities with one voice”.

PCS said the Cabinet Office project team working up the proposals was exploring whether Sunak’s public-sector pay freeze would have implications for any pay and terms-and-conditions offered to staff who would join any new centralised communications organisation.

“The initial view is that a business case can still be made in relation to pay, but it would have to be confirmed by the Treasury,” the union said.

In August, PCS called for a recruitment “pause” for communications staff to safeguard the jobs of existing professionals in the event that redundancies were proposed  as part of the centralisation.

PCS said its meeting with the project team on Thursday had resulted in an understanding that the pause could be introduced next month.

The union said the project team had also confirmed it was in discussions with the Home Office to make sure that its communications staff were not affected by “two different sets of changes to their jobs and structure”. The Home Office is currently reviewing the staffing of its communications operation. 

Last month,  Cabinet Office perm sec Alex Chisholm said he was "open" to the idea of centralising other functions along the lines being explored for comms professionals.

He was responding to a specific question about HR professionals at a session of parliament's Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

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