Last week I said ’Amen’ to New Labour’s PR. This week I want to
highlight one area where the Government’s approach to the presentation
of policy could be a considerable force for good. It lies in its attempt
to coax civil servants out of their protective shell of secretiveness.
It has to not be half-hearted about it. The Prime Minister gave the
clearest lead when he endorsed the Mountfield Report of nearly three
years ago into the Government Information and Communication Service.
In one forceful passage (chapter 5, para 48) it said: ’We agree with the
view that within many departments insufficient emphasis is placed by
civil servants involved in policy development on the communication
strategy that every important initiative or decision will require. Some
observers have noted something approaching disdain for the media and
communications matters. This weakness must be addressed so that policy
staff naturally think about communications aspects and involve
professional communications early enough to contribute
Behind those three sentences lie decades of anger, frustration and
bitterness among senior GICS staff over the obstructive elitism of the
administrative civil service. I experienced it in every department in
which I worked, including No 10. Most of my memorable rows were over a
failure to keep me informed. Margaret Thatcher records in her memoirs
one occasion when, for a change, I went ballistic. On page 417 of The
Downing Street Years she reports on the shambles with which the
Government handled a top salaries report in 1985: ’Fear of leaks meant
that those entrusted with explaining the rationale of our policy simply
did not know about it in time. Even Bernard Ingham had been kept in the
dark which, when he raised the matter with me afterwards, I conceded was
Absurd it may have seemed. But it happened. And it happened time after
time right across Government throughout the whole of my 24 years in the
civil service. And it happened even though top civil servants, knowing
that ministers need to explain their decisions to the public, saw no
compulsion to involve the press secretary so that he knew not only the
policy decisions but the thinking behind them.
Just imagine the problems encountered by PROs in the private sector
where there is none of the political pressure on governments to explain.
That underlines why New Labour, in its desire to kill administrators’
disdain for communication, could be so valuable to PR if it is able to
create a new, more open and integrated approach to presentation. The big
word is ’if’. I know the recidivist nature of bureaucracies, given the
chance to go back into their clam shell. The danger is that they will
when it is clear New Labour’s presentational strategy has failed.