The publication of Lord Neill’s report specifically those parts
relating to special advisers has once more brought to the surface the
long-running struggle between Government information staff intent on
preserving their impartiality and special advisers intent on selling and
defending their party.
Neill has taken on board claims by senior government information staff
that they are often put under pressure by special advisers to act in a
party political way. His report suggests the onus should be on advisers
to refrain from asking Government staff to act in a way that would
threaten their impartiality. It is an unhappy coincidence that in a week
when Neill’s respected and impartial committee has recognised that
special advisers need a little reining in, the Government was revealed
to be busy developing a sophisticated intranet which has the potential
to become a highly effective opposition-bashing tool.
In the private sector intranets are used by large organisations to keep
their staff informed and on board. If the Government’s new system,
dubbed the Knowledge Network, is used in a similar way, it will be a
great asset to civil servants and special advisers alike. But taxpayers
should not be asked to pay for a tool used to promote the Labour party
and undermine the Tories.
Once the Knowledge Network is up and running, it is almost certain to
lead to further tussles between special advisers and civil servants.
Subjecting it to a healthy dose of independent scrutiny could help
settle any future arguments over its proper use.