Exclusive: Ethics lessons ahead for government comms in bid to win trust

Amid low levels of trust in government and a Downing Street comms operation damaged by Partygate, the Government Communication Service (GCS) is to roll out training in propriety to comms staff across government.

A protest against Partygate in Parliament Square (photo Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Simon Baugh, chief executive, GCS, outlined the plans in an interview with PRWeek in which he admitted that the past year had been “challenging.”

Demonstrating honesty, impartiality and integrity is “absolutely critical” to effective comms as well as being “the right thing to do”, he said.

Mandatory training on GCS propriety guidance is to be introduced for all GCS members, as “acting with integrity is key” to building trust with the public.

There is a lot of ground to make up, for the Number 10 press office was at the heart of the Partygate scandal, with the department’s ‘wine time Fridays’ and various events attended by press office staff.



These included a Christmas party, as well as drunken get-togethers to mark the departures of Lee Cain and James Slack, former Downing Street directors of comms. Slack’s leaving event took place the night before Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021 – an occasion marked by the poignant sight of the Queen mourning alone, due to COVID restrictions.  

A Partygate protest in London on 13 April 2022 (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Apology

In May this year, Max Blain, the Prime Minister’s spokesman, apologised to lobby journalists for the Downing Street press office having repeatedly told journalists that COVID regulations were not broken during events in Whitehall. 

“There were failings both in terms of what happened and in terms of how it was handled,” he said. “Suffice to say there will be further work with regards to disciplinary action,” Blain added.


The integrity of the Downing Street press office was attacked by the Institute for Government in July, when Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the think tank, said: “The press office was at the heart of the party culture in No.10... But despite knowing that it was impossible to dress up what had been going on as 'work events' – the defence which cost Allegra Stratton her job – they went on covering up.”

She added: “It was only after the fines were issued and the full Gray report was published that the official spokesman stopped lying and put an apology for doing so on the public record.”


The Metropolitan Police investigation into Partygate resulted in more than 80 individuals being fined for breaking the law. It is not known how many of these were GCS members. 

Winning back trust

Shortly after becoming GCS chief executive last year, Baugh warned that comms was operating in a “volatile” landscape where public trust was “fragile.” 

Barely one in three (35 per cent) of Britons trust the government – significantly lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 41 per cent – according to the Office for National Statistics. 

The GCS propriety guidance reminds staff that they are expected to uphold values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. 

“The core values and behaviours required of all civil servants – integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – are of enduring relevance and value,” according to the GCS ‘Performance with Purpose’ three-year strategy, launched in May.  

“To build trust, we must maintain the highest ethical standards,” it says. And GCS members “should feel confident in being able to push back if they are asked to do something in contravention of the Civil Service code or the GCS propriety guidance”.

Mistakes were made

Addressing the issue of the Downing Street press office lying to the media, Baugh said that the Prime Minister’s spokesman “spoke to the lobby and recognised that there were mistakes made, both in terms of what happened and how that was handled.

He added: “From my perspective, the lobby system only works if members of the lobby can trust the PM's official spokesman and have confidence. Our job as civil servants is to make as positive a case as the facts warrant no more, no less than that.”

Baugh would not comment on what “we might have done in terms of individual personnel matters. But he stressed that he, along with the whole of Number 10, including the Prime Minister, are “very clear” that “we need to have the highest standards of integrity, professionalism and accountability.

Baugh said: “I'm really clear that what is in the Civil Service code and the GCS propriety guidance about the need for civil servants to act in a way that demonstrates honesty, impartiality, integrity is absolutely critical and critical to being able to do our job effectively, not just the right thing to do.”

Raising levels of trust in government will not happen overnight, he said. There are several elements driving trust, such as “taking action on misinformation and disinformation” and the importance of propriety guidance. “We're introducing some mandatory training very shortly for all GCS members on propriety guidance and making it clear how GCS members can raise a concern because I think people absolutely acting with integrity is key to that trust.” 

Special relationship

Asked about the relationship between special advisers, who are political appointments made by ministers, and members of the GCS, Baugh admitted that before he joined government he was “wary” and “nervous” about working with spads. 

“I probably watched too much of The Thick Of It and thought I was gonna have a kind of really sweary, difficult person to deal with.” Instead, the media spads he has dealt with have been “smart, capable people.

Spads have to act in accordance with the GCS propriety guidance in their dealings with the media. This does not allow them to “act in a way which would be dishonest or lacking in integrity, Baugh said.

In terms of who has primacy in the event of a conflict between a media spad and the GCS, he said that most ministers want their spads and civil servants to work well together “so in most cases that isn’t an issue” .

A tough year

“It has been for lots of people a really challenging year both personally and professionally,” according to Baugh.

The government comms chief cited the comms responses to Omicron, the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and the Queen’s funeral as “four once-in-a-generation events where I feel we can look back on and be really proud of what government communicators have delivered.

He added: “I think internally those have felt like the things that have been the focus of our attention, rather than some of the noises off.” 

Future priorities

Commenting on what the GCS will be tasked to do under Rishi Sunak’s premiership, Baugh said: “It's early days, I think it's very clear already that economic stability is going to be an absolutely key issue, and alongside that protecting vulnerable people and making sure that through campaigns like Help for Households we get the support for those who need it.”

He anticipates being tasked to address comms around skills, energy and infrastructure in the longer term, but said that plans are “still being developed.

Reflecting on the future, Baugh said: “I think a bit more stability would certainly be welcomed, I think by everyone, including no doubt ministers themselves.” However, he warned against any hopes for long-lasting stability: “I don't think we live in a world where we're ever going to get a long period of stability.” 

This means that one of the challenges for government communicators is: “How can we make sure that we are as successful as we can be in operating in a kind of volatile and quite unpredictable environment?”


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