Opinion: Improving government communication won’t save muddled policy decisions

While poor communications can damage public confidence and a government’s reputation, good communications cannot salvage one whose overall approach is inconsistent or dishonest, says IfG’s Alex Thomas
Government Brexit adverts in October 2019 'maintained the fiction' that the UK would be leaving that month, even when legislation had been passed preventing it, says Alex Thomas. Photo: Alamy

By Alex Thomas

17 Sep 2021

The Government Communication Service has a new leader. Simon Baugh, currently director of communications at the Home Office, will become GCS’s first “chief executive”, replacing Alex Aiken as the government’s top comms civil servant.

In a paper for the Institute for Government, Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s director of communications from 2019 to 2020, offers Baugh some advice by setting out the reforms Cain wanted to introduce. Those include, but are not limited to, setting up the now famously dropped regular televised press briefings from an expensive Downing Street studio.

Cain argues that the pandemic, and failures in the government’s response, exposed gaps in the authority and skill of GCS, the umbrella group of civil service press officers and communications advisers. He makes the case for greater coherence across the government’s public messaging and overhauling “an analogue system” to be fi t for a “digital age”.

More coherence in government messaging is to be welcomed, as is a clearer role and remit for communications experts across government. But there is a danger for Baugh if he puts too much weight on command and control. Over-mighty central management risks politicising GCS, and government departments and agencies need their own teams to advise on communications and respond directly to media queries.

Government communications have been damaged by a lack of honesty and transparency

Cain notes the importance of trust in the government’s messaging and accountability for ministers about what they say. But he could say more about the damage to government of a lack of honesty and transparency.

Trustworthiness is a prerequisite for good communication, undermined by successive governments that have bent and sometimes broken the truth. The Johnson administration has been particularly guilty. The Northern Ireland Office’s claim that there would be no border in the Irish Sea after the end of the Brexit transition period was misleading – as empty shelves in Northern Irish supermarkets in early 2021 made all too plain. So was the government’s £100m advertising campaign that maintained the fiction that the UK would be leaving the EU on 31 October 2019 – after parliament had passed a law to prevent it. It was actions like those that damaged the government’s reputation for straight dealing.

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.

Better policy making will lead to improved communications

Many of the answers to improving communications are outside the remit of the GCS. However well managed, no government communications team can obscure poor policy decisions or indecisive leadership. As the pandemic has repeatedly demonstrated, ineffective government messaging is more often the result of confused policies or delayed decisions than bungled communication. Muddles over international travel rules and quarantine, di­fferent local and national restrictions or the various school and exam debacles were failures of policy, not communication. The government’s Covid messaging improved from February 2021 because ministers worked out a plan for lifting restrictions, set it out clearly and then executed it.

To resolve confused communications, the government’s real task is to make sure that policies are clear and thought through, and that senior ministers, special advisers and civil servants across government are involved in and well briefed on what has been decided, why, and what it means. If decision making runs well and relationships are strong, then mishaps will happen less often and be solved rapidly when they do.

Government communications must be about more than No.10 media management

Good government also involves taking a wide view of communications. Making policy that works needs a deep understanding of how people might change their behaviour. Reforming the NHS or social care means communicating with patients. Reducing carbon emissions will need the government to persuade people to fly less or heat their homes differently. HS2 requires the government to talk to the winners and losers from the multi-billion pound investment. Improving standards in schools needs buy-in from teachers, parents and pupils. It is essential that good policy making incorporates excellent communications.

There should also be a more prominent role for operational and internal communications. Developing accessible and accurate information about how public services work across swathes of government activity is vital and resource intensive. Good internal communication is essential to lead, direct and enthuse the more than 400,000 civil servants who work for the government. One reason why Dominic Cummings’ ‘hard rain’ civil service reform plans failed was because he did not bring people along with him.

This is less visible work, and internal or operational communications is not where Whitehall high-fliers build their reputations. So more needs to be done to recruit top quality people, enhance their status and build their skills. Ministers and GCS leaders will regret it if they cut back on important work just because it is less high profile.

Simon Baugh (left) will need to consider all these points as he sets his priorities for GCS. He should draw on lessons learned at the Home Office – which has overstepped the mark on the propriety of its communications several times in recent years – to remind the prime minister of the importance to a government’s reputation of clarity, consistency and honesty in decision making.

Alex Thomas is a programme director at the Institute for Government, leading the institute’s work on policy making and the civil service

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