News Analysis: Whitehall strives for open comms

The Government Communications Network promises to change how Whitehall engages with the public. Sarah Robertson investigates its impact.

When DTI press officer Jo Moore suggested 9/11 was 'a good day to bury bad news', little did she know that the repercussions of her notorious email on government comms would still be felt four years later.

The Government Communication Network (GCN), overseen by permanent secretary for government communications Howell James, was unveiled by the Cabinet Office last week. It is the new engine at the heart of government comms, created to bring about a more open and accountable government as advised by Guardian Media Group chief executive Sir Robert Phillis's review.

Published in January 2004, the Phillis Review recommended scrapping The Government Information and Communication Service (GICS).

Its successor, the GCN, is an association open to all of the 2,000 government PROs, and includes web designers, internal communicators and marketers (PRWeek, 28 January).

Answering the critics

But what difference will it make to government communications? The GICS represented anyone in government who had a press-facing role, promoting best practice and responsible for appraising staff.

But critics said the system was exclusive and ignored communications staff who weren't press officers or in advertising. They also complained it was too rigid, blocking talented PROs and advertising staff from climbing the career ladder.

The new set-up is primarily designed to address the breakdown in trust between the public, media and Westminster. It is charged with encouraging more recruits from the private sector, as well as providing standardised training across all government departments. According to Department for Constitutional Affairs comms director Lucian Hudson, it will also give comms directors more scope.

'Comms directors will have more impact because communications is becoming an integral part of the business, helping to inform policy and improving delivery,' he says.

However, former head of GICS Mike Grannatt - whose role was abolished as a result of the Phillis Review - warns that amalgamating 'career communicators' with 'civil servants who access comms' could lead to a drop in standards.

'It could deter press people from joining if the system is misunderstood,' he adds. Other recommendations from Phillis included more direct communication with the public, a practice that Department for Work and Pensions comms director Simon MacDowall says is not about side-stepping media scrutiny, but about making news management less central to government comms strategy.

Direct communication with the public necessitates more investment in government websites, direct mail and frontline services. Department of Health comms director Sian Jarvis cites the setting up of a single government website, due to go live in spring, which will allow access to different departments' services from one place. She believes 'customers' must be put at the centre of services.

Former IPR president Anne Gregory, currently designing training courses and assessments for GCN members, says: 'This is about talking openly and getting feedback through direct communication with the public. You cannot get feedback from people through the press.' This policy helps address the problem that the Phillis Review was set up to tackle, says Gregory: 'The review was born in the atmosphere of confrontation between political communicators and the press. Both had forgotten they were there to serve the public and were too busy talking to each other rather than the public.'

However, Westminster City Council head of comms Alex Aiken (a former Conservative head of regional media) warns that direct communication from government will not be as trusted as messages that come via the media.

'People are going to ask: "Why is the government telling me this?",' says Aiken. 'Direct communication will come under the same scrutiny as coverage in the press. People choose to buy papers or watch TV because they trust these media. Direct government communications will have to reach the same standard.'

Grannatt says the Government will be scrutinised greatly, and Whitehall must pay great care to ensure it is seen to be publishing its policies, rather than selling the party in power.

Former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, Sir Bernard Ingham says the move is party political: 'The whole thing is a nonsense, hijacking public funds. They should stick to the GICS.'

HM Revenue and Customs comms chief Chris Hopson believes that because the GCN includes e-communications, publicity, marketing and stakeholder relations staff, it will help specialist PROs learn a wider array of comms-related skills: 'It is not about people becoming all-rounders. This network will let people swap notes.'

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister comms director Derek Plews says: 'The GCN's creation sends a message to government departments that there is more to comms than what is happening in the news.'

For better or worse?

The ultimate question though is whether the GCN will help to restore the public's trust in government communications. 'I sincerely hope so,' says Gregory. 'While the public may or may not know of the existence of the GCN, they will become aware of whether they can trust government information.'

Grannatt believes the new system has the potential to help government become more open, but adds: 'It will only happen if people want it to.'

He concludes: 'Despite the best efforts of the GCN, there may be people who will not change the way they operate.'

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