Government: Labour’s blueprint for Government PR - The report on the Government Information Service will centralise more power at No 10, demand a more proactive approach from civil servants and change the attribution system

It’s one of the great ironies of New Labour’s first six months in power - that a Government which was ushered in by one of the most formidable political PR machines in recent memory is required to review the situation after a number of its more enthusiastic spin doctors start becoming too creative with their messages and relations break down with the career civil servants.

It’s one of the great ironies of New Labour’s first six months in

power - that a Government which was ushered in by one of the most

formidable political PR machines in recent memory is required to review

the situation after a number of its more enthusiastic spin doctors start

becoming too creative with their messages and relations break down with

the career civil servants.



As a result of this review, Government communication will become more

centralised. The report published last week on the Government

Information Service (to be renamed the Government Information and

Communication and Service) responds to mounting pressure from ministers

for Government spokespeople to take a more proactive, co-ordinated and

round-the-clock approach to communication.



As a succession of heads of information have left or announced their

departure, the media has reported a break-down of traditional channels

of communication between GICS staff and ministers or their special

advisers.



Journalists have complained of contradictory off-the-record briefings

from special advisers, and a lack of impartial information. GICS staff

have expressed fears that the service risks becoming

politicised.Meanwhile, ministers have complained that information staff

are not proactive enough, providing inadequate weekend and after hours

cover and failing to brief them on potential danger areas.



The issue came to a head in October when confusing briefings over the

single European currency sent share prices tumbling in the City. In

response to the criticism that followed, Blair and his press secretary

Alastair Campbell announced they would look into the issue of

unattributed and off-the-record briefings.



The report includes new conventions for attributing briefings, and

suggests changes to the ways in which staff are recruited to and work

within the service. The main effect of the report will be to centralise

more power at No 10. Under the new conventions for attributing briefings

from special advisers, only Campbell and the two special advisers who

report to him, Hilary Coffman and Tim Allan, can be described as

official spokesmen.



This is designed to give weight to the official line from the centre

when No 10 press officers are responding to the kind of speculation and

confusion which surrounded Britain and the single currency.



Campbell is hiring around six hand-picked civil servants and special

advisers to form a new strategic communications unit. The unit, which

should add to No 10’s influence over Government communication strategy,

will monitor departments to ensure they are following the official

line.



It will ensure announcements are co-ordinated so that they do not

compete for media attention.



The unit will allow the Government to plan its communication strategy

and, along with a 24-hour media monitoring unit, will allow No 10 to

spot problem stories and plan the official response before they

escalate. The unit may even be involved in producing the Government’s

annual performance report, a new measure announced in August.



New conventions for attributing briefings from special advisers will

effectively identify them by name. When these are on-the-record,

advisers should be referred to as ’political adviser to’ the minister

concerned.



According to Patrick Rock, a consultant and the Public Policy Unit and

former special adviser for media relations to the previous Home

Secretary Michael Howard, says the new rules are unlikely to be well

received by the special advisers.



’If you’re carrying out a political briefing for the minister, the last

thing you want is to be personally identified in the paper, which is

effectively what this will do,’ he says.



The system will mark the difference between party political briefings by

advisers and Government briefings by GICS staff, who will continue to be

referred to as official spokesmen. The report attempts to tidy up the

hazy line between Government and Party by restating that information

staff are expected to remain politically impartial.



However the report encourages the recruitment of the five heads of

information from outside the civil service, marking the Government’s

keenness to find people trained in the cut and thrust of commerce -

already five of the vacant heads of information posts have been opened

to external candidates.



But the report does stress that candidates will be selected for their

ability to do the job and not their political stance or on the grounds

of good personal chemistry with their minister - one of the reasons

cited for many of the recent GIS departures.



According to Mike Granatt, head of the GICS, and co-author of the

report: ’The issue wasn’t that the best couldn’t do it but whether the

rest of the machine was up to it, which we acknowledged it wasn’t. The

report is a useful exercise in driving us forward into a more complex

media world.’



REVIEW FINDINGS



- A strategic communications unit will be set up at No 10 by Alastair

Campbell. The unit will ensure centralised forward planning of policy

presentation, and co-ordination between department’s and the Prime

Minister’s office.



- A greater emphasis on appointing heads of information from outside the

civil service, through open competition.



- Some GICS people to be seconded to the media to give them extra

experience.



- A 24-hour media monitoring service to be piloted from this week. The

unit will be staffed by officers on loan from other departments.

Departments will have to fund the 24-hour service from efficiency



savings.



- A new computer system will be installed to inform ministers of the

latest Government line on issues.



- The twice daily briefings to lobby journalists, traditionally

off-the-record, will now be attributed to the PM’s spokesman. Campbell

will not be named, photographed or filmed during the briefings. Special

advisers will be referred to as political adviser to the minister

concerned.



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