The Government’s GIS reforms engulf me in a wave of nostalgia

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 presentation.

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

presentation.



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.



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