Analysis: IPR submits demands to Govt comms review

It is three months since the Cabinet Office launched its wide-ranging review of government communications. Andy Allen reports on a work in progress

The Institute of Public Relations last week made its submissions to the Government Review of Communications, three months after it launched, with a call for all-round improvement in accountability and professionalism among Government comms services.

At the heart of the IPR's submission to the body - set up following criticism levelled at the Government's media relations after the Stephen Byers and Jo Moore affairs - is the call for Government communicators to come under scrutiny of the National Audit Office. The IPR also wants them to be put on a statutory footing, as recommended in the latest Wicks Report into standards in public life, and face the same kind of controls as other civil servants and local government comms departments.

IPR head of policy Nigel O'Connor says members want to see the accountability and professionalisation that can be found among local government comms staff applied to central government communicators: 'Local government is good at evaluation, but in central government, we see problems.'

In order to guarantee accountability, the IPR wants to set up an independent cross-industry panel of experts to conduct an annual review of publicly-funded government comms.

And it sees a new, expanded role for the GICS, the Government Information and Communication Service, which acts as a professional body for Government communicators. Currently, many Government comms staff are not members.

The IPR wants extra funding made available to the GICS to expand membership to all communicators, increase training and help imbue communicators with the same politically neutral ethos as civil servants.

In what O'Connor calls a 'radical' proposal, the IPR is also hoping for opposition and backbench MPs to be able to seek information directly from comms units, rather than apply to ministerial offices. This could help depoliticise the service, reduce the 'information gap' that, some believe, gives Government staff the edge due to their access to information, and cut costs, he says.

Yet the IPR's criticisms are tempered by repeated reassurances from sources at the institute that the GICS delivers 'real value in difficult conditions'.

Submissions from other bodies and individuals to the review have not been so charitable.

Martin Sixsmith was invited to post his own evidence by review chairman and Guardian Media Group CEO Bob Phillis. Sixsmith, who left his role as director of comms at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions after the Byers row, unsurprisingly pulls no punches.

'My experience as a civil servant led me to believe the Government is seeking to reshape the GICS in its own image,' says Sixsmith.

Accusing the service of being 'under pressure to become a slick PR machine arguing in favour of the Government of the day', he listed a range of criticisms concerning the direction in which the body is heading.

These include allegations that civil servants were told to include party political material in departmental news releases, help with smear campaigns against political opponents and set up rebuttal units to respond to opposition attacks on the Labour Party. Sixsmith cites an 'increasing politicisation of GICS as part of a deliberate political strategy'.

Former chief press secretary to Margaret Thatcher Sir Bernard Ingham is also among those to have given evidence. In a lengthy submission, he outlines what he sees as the erosion of safeguards intended to protect the GICS from political pressure: 'There has been no lack of rules, conventions or contracts ... but there has been a serious failure to observe them.'

The Centre for Public Relations Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University described the service as 'insular', and echoed the IPR's calls for it to become more integrated into the wider comms community.

In a hard-hitting submission, Stirling Media Research Institute cited training documents, which had come into its possession, showing there was very little emphasis on providing facts, and far more on 'giving an impression of sincerity, rather than a "pedantic" recital of facts'.

Review panel members include Good Relations Political Communications MD David Hill, Maitland Consultancy partner Colin Browne and former Chime Communications joint CEO Rupert Howell. They all say they will not comment until the committee has submitted its findings to Cabinet Office minister Douglas Alexander in October.

GICS head Mike Grannatt unsurprisingly says he welcomes the IPR's references to the professionalism of the service. He adds that the GICS had already made its own submissions to the review, although these will not be made public until the findings are released. Those hoping for a boost to professionalism and transparency in the GICS will be hoping this is not a taste of what's to come.

WWW.GCREVIEW.GOV.UK

Make your views known to the GICS review, and see the full list of submissions online.

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