Mike Granatt: Govt feels heat on public trust issues

The findings of the 2003 Phillis Review into Government comms take on greater resonance every day.

The coverage of Labour's secret loan operation is just one example of the deepening chasm of distrust between politicians and the media and public.

Next month the Cabinet Office will publish 'Engage', its answer to Phillis. It will respond positively to the call for more targeted, direct communication and less reliance on media handling. And this marketing-led approach should be no surprise. In a recent speech, Government Communications Network permanent secretary Howell James talked about gaining insights into what the public want, and tailoring policies to meet their wishes.  Marketing was the key. This echoed the view of his old BBC boss and erstwhile Number 10 adviser Lord Birt: some time ago, Birt berated top civil servants for their lack of marketing nous.

At face value, this sounds logical: effective communication is always about using every channel to meet the needs and concerns of the audience. But government comms is not simple selling. Effective government must inform, advise, warn and sometimes instruct the citizen.

Nor is it cheap. With campaign costs totalling at least £300m a year, government comms always sits on the brink of controversy, with the media seeking justification for massive spending on what they describe as spin.

Sixty years ago, parliamentarians complained bitterly that Clement Attlee's marketing of the new Welfare State was simply political. He replied that a radical, reforming Labour government needed effective communication to make its policies work. Ring any bells? The fuss was eventually quelled with new, clear rules that enshrined the principles of apolitical, informed consent: the citizen must be given the facts, as cost-efficiently as possible; government comms, in other words, must always inform, not persuade.

So will Engage signal an attempt to rebuild  trust between government, media and the public? If the report falls short, the public and media will simply have their cynicism fuelled. More than a missed opportunity, it could be an own goal given the current political climate.

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