'Downing Street power grab' of government comms downplayed

Government comms sources have questioned a Times article claiming 'Downing Street is planning a power grab of the Government's 3,300 spin doctors', but admit the idea of a single employer has been discussed.

Executive director of government comms Alex Aiken: Drawing up proposals (picture credit: Julian Dodd)
Executive director of government comms Alex Aiken: Drawing up proposals (picture credit: Julian Dodd)

According to the newspaper, proposals 'to bring press and campaigns staff under a single employer' – No 10 or the Cabinet Office – have been sent out informally within Whitehall.

The Times cites government sources saying ‘the idea would end the practice of media staff being recruited by individual Whitehall departments and working only for their secretary of state’.

A Cabinet Office source told PRWeek the idea was ‘categorically’ not in the proposals.

But a senior Whitehall communicator told PRWeek that the creation of a single employer has been ‘one idea discussed among many others’.

However, they added: ‘It’s not going to happen any time soon, as there are so many obstacles, with the cost of creating a single employer one huge barrier.’

They cast doubt on the Times story as a ‘Chinese whispers’ version of ongoing talks under Alex Aiken, the executive director of government comms, to encourage interdepartmental working between comms teams.

‘This isn’t a power grab by Number 10 – it’s largely come from officials within the Whitehall comms profession under Alex’s leadership to create a more rigorous unified profession.’

Another high-level comms head called the idea of a Cabinet Office ‘landgrab’ ‘patently daft’ and said: ‘The reality is that there are variable standards of comms across departments and the idea is to bring in a system that spreads excellence.

‘The single employer idea would mean that you could flex resources in and out of departments, but it’s one that there’s no solid agreement for and it would be quite far down the track and a matter of years. The initial step is moving to creating a single profession through creating better unity across Whitehall then we would look at the single employer idea.’

The Cabinet Office declined to comment further on the content of the proposals, which are being drawn up in consultation with departments, civil servants and PR trade bodies the PRCA and CIPR.

One idea that was published in June is the creation of a cross-government communication function within the Cabinet Office, led by Aiken, to ‘bring coherence to day-to-day media relations and drive longer-term impact for the Government’s most defining communications tasks’.

The recommendation is contained in a Government Communication Network review of the comms capability of the Cabinet Office.

It states: ‘The Cross-Government Communications Group would take an outcomes-based approach, supported by audience understanding and polling analysis. It would work closely with planning teams to ensure that all communication activities are aligned. To be successful it needs sufficient resources, senior backing and cross-government governance. An important start point would be close integration with HM Treasury communications leadership team.’

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: ‘As part of the Civil Service Reform Plan, we have made a commitment to strengthening professions across Government. Communications is a crucial part of that and it is right that we work with Whitehall departments to explore how we deliver high-quality, cost-effective campaigns. We expect to announce conclusions and proposals in the coming months.’

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