If planned comms changes go through, the PM will find they have made the government machine work much less effectively when the next crisis bites
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the changing nature of the relationship between No.10 and the rest of government that the next organisation in line for the Dominic Cummings treatment is the Government Communication Service.
GCS is the cadre of civil servants who manage how the work of government departments is presented to the outside world. These are press officers, social media officers, designers, marketing professionals and so on. They are important jobs and they are not political. They are supposed to be there to improve the public’s understanding of what is happening in departments, how policies are being implemented, and inform them about services that are on offer.
It now seems that the number of communications professionals is to be drastically reduced and their roles centralised into the Cabinet Office, which raises concerns that government communications will be focused merely on news management and rebuttal. This risks further politicising government comms and the loss of public confidence.
Fully centralising communications also risks a more general approach to communications and the loss of the specific relationships and expertise required for both efficacy and accuracy. Departments, agencies and arm’s-length bodies are best placed to know the important policy issues they need to communicate, as well as the citizens, businesses and stakeholders they serve. They are the best judges of the resources and headcount needed, not a Cabinet Office proxy for No.10.
Prospect is proud of what its members do in this area and there is some merit in supporting a level of centralisation. Comms is sometimes disparaged but it is an important and rewarding profession, often stressful, and it requires proper support. Some centralisation could provide better training and development, encourage the coordination of strategies, and allow staff to move more easily out of the smokestacks of departments and agencies, sharing best practice and enabling better and more consistent pay and reward. But it is clear from the way that this is being done that this is not the aim.
We have seen the regard in which this government and its advisers hold the independence of the civil service. There have been repeated anonymous briefings against individual civil servants and the service in general, and allegations that somehow their impartiality is in question and they are working against the wishes of the government. We have seen increasing incidence, for example, of departmental accounts being used to rebut political stories in a way that is far from the apolitical norm. Since entering Downing Street as an adviser, we have also seen a huge power grab from Dominic Cummings, insisting on having oversight of the hiring and firing of all special advisers, forcing out the former chancellor Sajid Javid for not sacking his own adviser. Senior civil servants have been and continue to be forced from their jobs.
The independence of the civil service is under threat at a time when due to the Covid-19 crisis the government has never been more reliant on it. And that’s before we even get to the impending debacle of exiting the EU. Civil servants must be able to speak truth to power without fear of reprisal. The public must be able to trust that there is a clear separation between the apolitical delivery of the executive’s wishes, and the political development of those wishes – it is the very foundation of our democracy. It is especially important in the current crisis that the public has confidence in the messages it receives from the machinery of government. Any hint that that message is subject to political interference could have knock on effects on things as important as public compliance with any future lockdown guidance.
Politics and the civil service are, of course, closely interwoven – but they are still separate and must remain so. The chipping away of that separation, as looks like happening with these unnecessary headcount reductions and operational changes, will have nothing but a huge detrimental impact on the effective governance of this country. If these changes go through, when the next crisis bites, the prime minister and his chief advisor will find that they will have made the government machine work much less effectively, and it will be obvious for all to see who is to blame.