My cup runneth over. The Government is adopting every idea I
canvassed as No 10 press secretary and head of the Government
Information Service (GIS), for improving its information machine. It is
even resurrecting Prime Minister Edward Heath’s requirement of 25 years
ago for ministerial policy submissions to contain a section on
I was overcome by nostalgia reading last week’s working group report on
the GIS. There is nothing incompatible, it says, between the vigorous
exposition of Government policy and an information officer’s political
impartiality. I wish I had had the benefit of such a statement in the
early 1980s when for three years dissidents destructively leaked my
every GIS meeting to the Guardian. It would have been invaluable for
ministers, bureaucrats and the GIS then to have been told officially, as
the report does, that there should be the closest two-way co-ordination
between No 10 and departments and, within departments, between policy
and presentation staff and information officers and special advisers.
When I proposed a single inter-departmental computerised communications
system - introduced by Michael Heseltine in 1995 - I was accused of
being ’power mad’.
I would have given my right arm for the top brass to have laid it down
that, since communication is an integral part of policy formulation,
disdainful policy makers should work with information staff rather than
bring them in when the policy is settled. I fought for years for greater
interchange between policy and communications staff. Now Mr Blair has
told departments to do this.
This is not to mention the promotion of best communications practice, a
central unit to bring coherence to Government presentation (which was No
10 press office’s job in my more economical days) and better GIS
training and career development which I encouraged as head of the GIS.
Why, ministers may even find it more difficult to fire information heads
because of ’personal chemistry’ usually because they want to bring in a
pet. Government, civil servants, media and public will all benefit if
all this is actually implemented - and much of itmay be since this
Government is preoccupied with presentation.
But none of this made the headlines last week. Instead, the big news was
Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s press secretary, going on the record,
though wisely without being named as the source or heard or seen on
radio and TV. This is not as big a deal as was made out. I knew from
1981 that, even in the old unattributable days, I would be identified if
I said anything remotely exciting. What is more, the new regime will not
end ’off the record’ briefing. It is therefore designed more to recover
credibility than to herald the dawn of open government.