If the Government was trying to put an end to stories about spin-doctoring and political back-slapping by creating the new post of permanent secretary for government communications, did it pick the wrong man for the job? Howell James is a friend of Peter Mandelson and had the misfortune of taking on the Hinduja brothers as PR clients for two weeks just before the cash-for-passports row erupted in 2001. Add in the fact that he sat on the committee that recommended his new post be created and you have journalists rubbing their hands with conspiratorial glee. The Daily Mail welcomed James’s appointment with the headline: ‘Mandy’s friend will be the new king of spin at Number 10.’
That said, James can hardly be charged with being one of ‘Tony’s cronies’ as several newspapers suggested when the appointment was announced earlier this year. He was, after all, John Major’s political secretary from 1994 until the Tories’ general-election defeat in 1997. He was also special adviser to Lord Young at the Cabinet Office, Department of Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry during the mid-1980s under Margaret Thatcher.
In between he managed to fit in roles at Capital Radio and TV:AM before becoming the BBC’s director of corporate affairs in 1987. Then he moved to head of communications at Cable & Wireless. Following Major’s defeat, James co-founded his own PR company – Brown Lloyd James – and worked for a range of large business clients until he was offered the post of permanent secretary in the wake of the Phillis Committee’s Independent Review of Government Communications. He has certainly been around the block in communications terms both in the public and private sectors.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a seasoned PR man, James doesn’t view his appointment as contentious. ‘I don’t think there were any conflicts of interest,’ he says. ‘In some ways I was in a fortunate position because
I knew and understood many issues well. I assumed my previous incarnations would make people understandably reluctant. I hadn’t considered [the job] at all until I was called and asked if I’d think about it.’
The Phillis Review, commissioned in the wake of various criticisms of government communications, intended to be a radical external review of government comms that would provide various recommendations as to how to improve the function. The creation of a permanent secretary was recommended to create a ‘strong central communications structure’.
Once he had been offered the post, James realised he had missed the communications challenges that lie at the heart of government: ‘I’ve always found that jobs in the public arena have a special kind of pertinence, salience and challenge – it’s the levels of public scrutiny, the obligation to explain. It keeps you on your toes.’
The basics of the role were outlined within the Phillis Report but James has been fleshing out the nature of the job since he joined the civil service in July. Key functions include co-ordinating government communications across departments, leading the comms profession across government, and helping comms departments understand how they can improve their offering to ministers and other senior officials.
Evolving government comms
James is also charged with modernising the government communications machine: ‘I want to make sure the government communications function operates to a degree of professionalism and expertise that the public and policy makers have a right to expect.’
It is a mammoth task, given the nature of government and the endless communications challenges that it faces. James is well aware of the difficulties that might lie ahead and doesn’t see there being one easy reform to make it all work perfectly. Nor, it is clear, does he want to criticise the work members of the Government Information and Communication Service have done to date.
‘Government communications has inevitably grown out of a culture of focus on media and media handling – that’s entirely proper and understandable and I don’t want to change that,’ he says. He adds, however, that government communicators also have to recognise that newspapers don’t always offer the best avenue to set out what the Government is doing. Sometimes, more direct means of communication with the public are preferable.
Similarly, he suggests that a better understanding of where the public are and how they access information might be needed. In fact, he sees better internal civil-service communications as crucial in ensuring the right messages reach the right people at the right time. ‘We’ve got thousands of public servants who are often the carriers of the first run of information the public receive,’ he says. ‘We have to learn the lessons of the private sector and apply them to the unique environment of government to get the messages out to the public directly.’
It sounds a little like James is scared of government messages being filtered too heavily by the media. That might be part of the problem but he insists it is not the whole story. Much of the need for direct communication emanates from the findings of the Phillis Review and the recommendation to modernise government comms. But is there not a danger that, in turn, the Government will simply pick up the messages and noise being put about by the media? ‘The media represent a vivid part of the constituency but we have to work towards a greater understanding of where the public really are. We’re working towards that,’ he says.
James notes that the media have altered since his days in Major’s team. The competitive, questioning element has not gone away, but delivery channels have altered: online and mobile-phone services and 24-hour TV news are an established part of the scene. James points out it is only natural that government comms should seek to evolve and grow in order to respond to those changes.
And he believes his varied career has more than prepared him for his role – his background certainly gives him a rich amount of experience from which to draw, and he is keen to welcome more representatives from the private sector into government communications for relevant senior posts.
So what from his background has taught him the most? James reluctantly acknowledges the Hinduja affair was problematic but
doesn’t want to dredge up the story again. He will only point out that he accepted the brothers as clients for work unrelated to the passport scandal and only represented them for ten days. ‘When you become personally embroiled in a story it’s always the most difficult,’ he says, before moving on to explain the last year of the Major government was probably the most challenging in his career. ‘The day-to-day pressures in that environment meant working very long hours. To a degree that makes it satisfying because you are so focused – but it was also very tough.’
Even if Tony Blair’s government finds itself in a similar position ahead of the next general election, James points out he was not a civil servant under Major so the roles are not comparable. ‘I hope we can go back towards the purpose of our role – enabling people to understand what the Government is doing and how they can interact with it. We want to move away from this obsession with the mechanisms,’ James says. He now faces a very different, but no less tough, task.