POLITICAL PR: Wicks kicks in - The Wicks inquiry into standards in public life is aiming to improve the reputation of the civil service

As the Committee on Standards in Public Life starts its public hearings into the role of special advisers this week, there's no doubt about who the press will want to see taking the witness stand.

Stephen Byers, Martin Sixsmith, Jo Moore and Sir Richard Mottram could all make a tasty splash if they decide to co-operate with Sir Nigel Wicks's committee.

Dan Corry, the special adviser recently accused of trying to undermine rail safety campaigners, would also make an interesting side-dish.

The committee isn't specifically looking into the troubles of the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions but the situation that developed at Eland House is seen as an example of how badly relationships can go wrong.

'We are looking at general lessons and anything in the structure that meant that perhaps things went wrong this time around and could be done differently in the future,' says committee press secretary Fiona Dick.

Coverage of the Byers/Moore/Sixsmith affair gives the impression that special advisers and civil servants co-exist in a state akin to guerrilla warfare. But in many cases that's a long way from the truth. Political appointees have been part of government life since the 1970s and in many cases work closely with civil servants, often to mutual benefit.

Charlie Whelan, chancellor Gordon Brown's former press secretary, and now a PRWeek columnist, says most civil servants like and are in favour of special advisers: 'Most of them work really closely together - special advisers are in the interests of civil servants.'

Not only do they allow the civil service to claim that it is neutral, but he argues that they also let them keep their hands clean. Others add that they also enable ministers to keep in touch with their political roots as well as providing an alternative to the 'incremental' thinking of civil servants.

Like Whelan, Institute of Public Relations president Jon Aarons is keen to emphasise that while there might be problems with a few individuals, the bulk of the special advisers and civil service communications professionals work well together.

'We really are talking about a very small handful of special advisers who have been at the root of the problem,' he says.

'Whenever there's an incident involving one or two people it gets magnified out of all proportion and everyone in government communications and wider PR feels tainted by that,' he adds.

It's possible to argue that many of the problems that are now arising stem from the attitude that New Labour and its special advisers brought to office when they first came into power in 1997.

'They came into office in 1997 with an opposition mindset and with a very aggressive approach to managing the media that had served them during the opposition years,' says Aarons.

But if that was the reason in the early years of New Labour's rule, the problems clearly haven't gone away after more than five years in power.

Liberal Democrats head of communications David Taylor recently savaged the excessive zeal of some special advisers on Channel 4.

'What we need is far more facts given unvarnished and unspun to Parliament. There must also be a far clearer definition of what governmental special advisers are entitled to do and what they're not entitled to do. That way we might encourage a little more faith in the political process,' he says.

In its submission to the Wicks Committee, the IPR has called for a number of changes to the current rules governing special advisers to stop problems arising.

'Rebuilding trust and confidence in politics is a challenge for politicians, political communicators and the media. While an omnibus poll showing any of these groups as "most trusted is unlikely, a shared sense of duty to maintaining the integrity and credibility of communication will help minimise, if not begin to reverse, public disenchantment with the democratic process,' says IPR head of policy Nigel O'Connor.

The recommendations stem from a seminar held at the end of April, which gathered together public affairs professionals, special advisers, civil servants and IPR officials around the same table.

Aarons points out that as many of the parties concerned are unable to voice their views in public, the IPR submission allows current civil servants and advisers an input into the process. He argues that there is a desire on the behalf of special advisers for recognition that the work they do makes a valuable contribution in a democracy.

'The voices were for special advisers who said we deserve a little bit of recognition for our professionalism,' he says.

According to Whelan, civil servants sometimes look down on special advisers. That's one reason why Alastair Campbell wanted to become a full-time official, he adds.

So will these new suggestions ensure a smoother running of the civil service and reduce the potential for conflict?

The recommendations on training are widely welcomed. One current adviser says training would help special advisers understand the situation they find themselves in.

'When you join the civil service, you have quite a lot of training about what it means to be a civil servant and what doing public service in that way entails. If you are a special adviser you're coming in to be a temporary civil servant, you get no training,' he says.

Former special advisers agree. 'I would have welcomed (training and induction) when I first went to the foreign office,' says former special adviser David Clark, who worked for Robin Cook from May 1997 to May 2001. 'For me, the induction process was being shown into my office and told: "Here's your desk, here's your secretary, here's some paper - get on with it".'

There are those who argue that special advisers generate heat rather than light when they are involved in external communications and that the policy specialists tend to fare better.

'I suspect there's less conflict when you've got a person brought in for their policy expertise. The conflict tends to arise when the special adviser is brought in for their external communications skills,' notes Westminster Strategy chairman Michael Burrell.

However, one current adviser refutes such claims as a red herring because without a clear understanding of a policy and its origins, it's impossible to present it properly.

Labour advisers also note that while the Conservatives might be enjoying Labour's current discomfort, they also could find themselves in a similar position. After a minimum of eight years out of office, they too will find it difficult to adjust to the difference between opposition and government, potentially leading to the same problems.

Burrell argues that while what's been suggested is eminently sensible he'd like to see a civil service act to see the terms enshrined in law, 'so it's completely clear'.

The Independent chief political commentator Donald MacIntyre, another fan of a civil service act, says that whatever changes are made to the rules, the key will be the signals that come from the top.

'There's a slight tendency to sort of shoot the messenger rather than the people who created the culture in which the messages are delivered,' he observes.

Despite the outcry surrounding the latest political scalps, the IPR argues that it's important not to over-react. 'The fact that Byers, Moore, Sixsmith and Corry have all now gone from government suggests that the system works,' says Aarons.

'I don't think we should rewrite the rules on the basis of one or two bits of misjudgement,' he adds.

Whelan takes a different view.

He says it's time to reject the mantra of a politically neutral civil service, the solution for him is 'bringing in your own people. Cut the crap, do not pretend these people are neutral, bring in some pros that can do the job'.

Only when the Wicks Committee unveils its verdict towards the end of the year, will we know which argument has been more convincing.

THE IPR'S RECOMMENDATIONS

The IPR has submitted the following comments to the Committee on Standards in Public Life:

- The integrity of civil servants should be maintained by direct reporting through permanent officials

- At no time should special advisers instruct civil servants except through ministers

- Special advisers should receive induction and training to help them prepare for a highly charged political environment (and the alternative term 'political adviser' adopted)

- The government should clearly state intention on future limited numbers of special advisers

- A clause should be inserted into the Code for Special Advisers stating that as much as possible should be put on the record and properly attributed

- There should be transparency to Parliament on 'Short Money'

- Top-tier management, including ministers, civil servants and special advisers, should receive training on public communication rules.

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