By Dave Penman

09 Jul 2020

New leaks to the press about reforms to the Government Communication Service are yet more proof that this government sees control from No.10 as critical to its operation and success

In a moment of supreme irony – so vast that it was visible from the International Space Station with the naked eye – the announcement that the Government Communication Service was about to be centralised was handled so cack-handedly, that I’m sure it's already being used by government communications to teach departmental teams how not to announce something.

That is, of course, if you care about the profession and the people who dedicate their lives to informing and influencing the public for the greater good. If not – and really this was all about pre-announcing further centralisation of control over departments and ministers to avoid any organised pushback – then hey, good job.

It’s clear that there have been thoughts before on whether a more centralised model for government communications is the right thing. It’s an inevitable consideration with a large, cross-government function and a similar argument waged for some time before the Government Legal Department was created. At that time, there was strong vision from Sir Paul Jenkins, the then-Treasury solicitor and a force of nature, who helped drive the change.

An old union mentor of mine used to say: “Not all change is progress and not all movement is forward”. The reaction to the substance of the announcement, not just the handling of it, suggests there are different views on whether this will enhance or hinder the profession. Given the signal around greater control, there will be inevitable pushback from departments and ministers. I know there are differing views among the government communications community as well. Some will see a strong rationale and possible opportunity; others will fear a dilution of autonomy and the prospect of job cuts.

All of this I’m sure was predicted, which is why the briefing of the announcement to the newspapers on a Thursday evening is once again such a destructive act. Managing change is one of the key skills of any modern manager, particularly in the civil service. Change is constant, as it is for many organisations where technology or resources drive organisational development. In the civil service, there is the added dynamic of changing political leadership that can turn departmental priorities in a 180-degree pivot overnight following an election, a change of prime minister or even just a change of minister.

None of this was a consideration for whoever leaked it. Suspicion, as ever, will fall on Hard Rain Man or those around him in No.10 – they do have some form on this. To be honest, it no longer matters. Anonymous briefing, whether against individuals or in this case about an organisational change, has become par for the course with this government. As Sir Mark Sedwill said in his evidence to the National Security Strategy Committee this week, civil servants have become “fair game”. It’s just another notch on the gotcha belt for someone who got their way, got their headline and doesn’t have to deal with or care about the consequences. Meanwhile, those tasked with the critical role of delivering effective communication in the middle of a public health and economic emergency, are left to ponder whether they have a job, a career or even matter to ministers.

It also reinforces the view that this government sees control from No.10 as critical to its operation and success. Despite howls of protest about previous blogs on delegation and management theory, each “reform” points to control being the main motivation. Special advisers are centrally managed from No.10 and now routinely moved between ministers, further undermining the independence of ministers which is so vital for cabinet government. Controlling the message is clearly just the next extension of this.

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