Time to put an end to this silent treatment

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.

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

substantively’.



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’.



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.



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