Lee Cain: Government comms 'failing in many of its most basic functions'

Boris Johnson’s former Downing Street director of communications, Lee Cain, says that the Government Communication Service (GCS) is 'failing' and in need of a major 'overhaul'.

Former No.10 comms chief Lee Cain has called for a radical overhaul of government comms
Former No.10 comms chief Lee Cain has called for a radical overhaul of government comms

In a paper published by the Institute for Government on Friday, Cain made a damning assessment of the state of Government comms.

He says in the paper that the “system as a whole is failing in many of its most basic functions due to its overwhelming size, unclear command and control structures, and inability to understand and implement modern communication methods”.

In his critique of the GCS, Cain claims that “media relations skills have atrophied over recent years”. In addition, digital skills are “in short supply” and “broadcasting experience is extremely limited”.

Most press officers no longer see engagement with the media as a core part of their role, according to Cain. And he claims the COVID-19 comms hub set up in the Cabinet Office during the pandemic was “a failure due to inexperienced staff and unclear lines of responsibility” along with “inconsistent” policy development and “endemic” leaks.

His paper argues that COVID-19 demonstrated the “importance of a single government voice”.

In Cain’s view, “Government communications has forgotten how to carry out its primary functions – engaging with the media and communicating with the public.”

The GCS – which has a staff of about 8,000 people – should be slashed, he says. “Departments are significantly overstaffed, especially in areas like strategic communications or internal comms, with poor performance routinely accepted.”

And he argues that a “great many” GCS staff “do not deliver value for money”.

He adds: “If we are to improve the output of the Government’s communication operation the most important action needs to be a dramatic cut in personnel.”

Cain argues that Government department comms teams should be capped, “with an upper limit of around 30 or 40”.

Cain's 10-point plan

He outlined his plan to “dramatically improve” the GCS:

  1. He called for new single-employer GCS – with all comms staff employed centrally rather than by individual departments.
  2. This new GCS should be led by several officials at director-general level, giving comms professionals parity with their policy peers.
  3. GCS should also carry out all research and insight for departments to ensure value for money and co-ordination of effort.
  4. There should be a significant reduction in staffing numbers across Whitehall, with press operations capped at 30-40 members.
  5. The balance of responsibilities between special advisers and senior media practitioners should be reset. Each department’s head of news should take on an additional role of a press/official spokesperson.
  6. Every department should have a dedicated broadcast team tasked with, and accountable for, achieving broadcast coverage.
  7. Directors of communication and heads of news should regard adhering to the overall government message as a key responsibility.
  8. Government communications should continue to embrace new technology – producing and distributing government’s own content and engaging directly with the public.
  9. GCS staff “should be digitally literate as a core part of their daily function”.
  10. The Government needs to move away from the rigid focus on media management and give “greater weight to strategic communications”.

Cain resigned from Downing Street last November, amid rumours of a rift with Boris Johnson’s then-fiancée, Carrie Symonds. Cain has since launched his own comms agency.

Responding to his criticisms, a Government spokesperson said: "These claims are misleading – throughout the pandemic we have set out clear, targeted and effective communications to help the public protect themselves, directly preventing millions of infections and saving thousands of lives."

They added: "The COVID-19 Hub is delivering the biggest public information campaign since the Second World War, reaching an estimated 95 per cent of adults on average 17 times per week at the peak, using every means possible including social media, influencers, radio, TV and widespread digital marketing."

And Alex Aiken, Executive Director of the GCS, said: "We can be hugely proud of government communications which is rightly recognised as world leading. From delivering the biggest targeted public information campaign the UK has seen since the Second World War - saving tens of thousands of lives - to finding ways to reach audiences through exciting new media - we are continuing to innovate and set the bar high."

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