Coalition's comms efforts muddled by No 10 and civil service divide

Tensions between Number 10 and the wider Government are blunting the effectiveness of the coalition's comms efforts, a departmental insider has claimed.

Adviser: Hilton during his time at Number 10 with the PM (Credit: Rex Features)
Adviser: Hilton during his time at Number 10 with the PM (Credit: Rex Features)

David Cameron’s comms strategy was thrust into the spotlight following claims by Steve Hilton, the PM’s ex-policy guru, that Downing Street’s core team often learned of its own Government’s policies through the media.

Hilton’s words follow a number of announcement problems for Number 10, including a Defra turnaround on selling Forestry Commission woodland and apparently out-of-the-blue pledges by Cameron on energy tariffs.

Relations between both the civil service and departments and Number 10 have soured since the coalition came into office, one well-placed government source claimed.

‘There was hostility from the civil service to the coalition initially, and the coalition seemed less willing to listen to strategic advice,’ he said.

‘Now you will have spads growing their fiefdoms in departments, which are more likely to run their own news than before.’

This week, The Times pointed to an ‘increasingly bitter power struggle’ taking place between the civil service and ministers.

Alex Deane, former chief of staff to Cameron and now head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick, acknowledged that the Government had to ‘gain better control of the civil service’.

In a blog on Hilton’s revelations, Damian McBride, a former adviser to Gordon Brown, suggested a down-grading of the role of the Government media ‘grid’ had played a key role in the discord.

Launched by Tony Blair’s first government, the ‘grid’ is still used by the coalition. Longstanding media grid co-ordinator Paul Brown stepped down in 2011 and was replaced by civil servant Robin Gordon-Farleigh.

One source pointed to the lesser seniority of Gordon-Farleigh – who is civil service grade six rather than Brown’s five – as indicative of the downgrading of the news grid.

Nick Williams, Fleishman- Hillard’s head of public affairs and former senior political adviser to Blair, added though the grid system ‘still works’ it does not carry the same ‘weight of importance’ as under Labour.

However, the claim was countered by a senior government source, who said the ‘grid is still hugely important in organising comms activity’.

How I see it

Nick Laitner, acting head of public affairs, MHP

The story of ministers and officials at loggerheads is as old as Whitehall itself. But the scale of the current briefing is symptomatic of a wider issue – a lack of grip at the centre of Government. It desperately need a senior, credible figure overseeing comms.

Iain Bundred, head of corporate and public affairs, Ogilvy

Effective news planning is crucial to every big organisation, which was why the last government invested so much effort in co-ordinating the weekly grid. The chaotic management of the Prime Minister’s Europe speech brings to life Hilton’s worries.

Cameron says ‘enormous bureaucracy’ needs to be cut 

David Cameron said in a radio interview he ‘agreed’ with some points that former policy adviser Steve Hilton had raised about the Government’s relationship with the civil service.

The Sunday Times reported that, while lecturing at Stanford University, Hilton claimed ‘bureaucracy masters the politicians’, leading to difficulties about policy announcements and driving change.

In his talk, Hilton pointed to EU bureaucracy as taking up ‘40 per cent’ of government time, compared with only 30 per cent ‘delivering coalition policy’.

He added that Number 10 often learned from the media about other announcements in government.
Talking to John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, Cameron denied he was ‘at war’ with the civil service, calling the relationship ‘robust’.

However, he said he agreed with Hilton that ‘there’s an awful lot of bureaucracy and quangocracy’.
‘We’ve got an enormous bureaucracy – there are too many quangos, there are too many rules – including those coming from Brussels.

‘We need to cut that back, we need to deregulate, we need to reduce the number of quangos, all of which we are doing.’

Key figures

30% Percentage of government time spent delivering on policy*

40% Percentage of government time spent implementing EU regulations*

30% Percentage of government time spent doing ‘random things’*

£285m The Government’s planned comms spend for 2012-13**

*Steve Hilton, as reported in The Sunday Times; **10 Dowing Street

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