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Lee Cain guest paper: IfG response

Lee Cain is right that government communications need an overhaul

Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s former director of communications, is right that government communications need an overhaul. But more co-ordination and digital capability cannot make up for loss of public trust or poor policy decisions, says Alex Thomas

Incoming No.10 heads of communications often find a system in need of a refit. Joe Haines, as Harold Wilson’s press secretary, attacked the lobby; when Tony Blair became prime minister Alastair Campbell created the ‘grid’ of government announcements and transformed civil service media monitoring. Craig Oliver was appointed because David Cameron wanted to focus more on broadcast media than print.

Lee Cain was no different. When serving Boris Johnson from 2019 to 2020 he tried to make changes including setting up regular televised press briefings from an expensive Downing Street studio, although these never materialised. His guest paper for the Institute for Government describes other reforms he planned to introduce.

Cain argues that the pandemic, and failures in the government’s response, exposed gaps in the authority and skill of the Government Communication Service (GCS), the umbrella group of civil service press officers and communications advisers. He makes a good case for greater coherence across the government’s public messaging and overhauling “an analogue system” to be fit for a “digital age”.

But Cain overlooks the damage of a lack of honesty and transparency, especially by letting ministers off the hook, and gives too little time to underlying problems with the way policy is made. His focus is on sharpening central control, not the importance of better communication in day-to-day policy making and other government business.

Cain is right to want to strengthen the Government Communication Service

Mishaps result from GCS being caught between a powerful No.10 media team and departmental communications directors focusing on the demands of their secretaries of state. Prime ministers turn to their own No.10 political appointments for media advice, leaving GCS reduced to lower priority work. It lacks a coherent purpose beyond being an identity badge for communications experts in government, and is underpowered, led by an executive director rather than a more senior director general.

Properly integrating GCS and Downing Street operations would be an improvement, with GCS officials benefiting from No.10’s media savvy and in return doing more to shape and support policy decisions. This would help government messaging to be more coherent and discourage ministers, special advisers and civil servants from working in departmental silos.

But there is a danger in putting too much weight on command and control. Some faults, like arm’s-length bodies issuing rogue briefings or departments failing to hold No.10’s media line, might need a tighter grip, but too much central management risks politicising GCS. Government departments and agencies also need their own teams to advise on communications and respond directly to media queries, not least to follow Cain’s recommendation that expert civil service press officers should take more responsibility for briefing journalists.

There is also still a long way to go to make government communications properly fit for digital and visual media. Press notices, inscrutable tweets and dry consultation documents are not a good way for the government to say what it is doing and why. The government needs access to better digital skills and to take advantage of new platforms to interact with the public.

Government communications have been damaged by a lack of honesty and transparency

However some of Cain’s other proposed reforms miss their target, and behind the troubles and remedies he identifies are deeper problems.

Trustworthiness is a prerequisite for good communication, undermined by successive governments that have bent and sometimes broken the truth. Cain regrets the loss of the “Whitehall denial”, that “when a press officer said a story wasn’t true, it wasn’t printed”.

The convention is of dubious benefit, with higher public expectations of transparency, a huge growth in media and social media, and the time of deference to ministers long gone. Government actions have anyway been a long way from the “gold standard” of integrity and transparency needed to underpin trust. Journalists dispute government statements not because, as Cain suggests, press officers lack confidence or status, but because – too often – information is incomplete, wrong or left uncorrected when errors are exposed.

This is down to ministerial leadership, or lack of it, and the Johnson government has been particularly guilty. The Northern Ireland Office’s claim that there would be no border in the Irish Sea after the end of the Brexit transition period was misleading – as empty shelves in Northern Irish supermarkets in early 2021 made all too plain. So was the government’s £100m advertising campaign that maintained the fiction that the UK would be leaving the EU on 31 October 2019 – after parliament had passed a law to prevent it. It was actions like those that damaged the government’s reputation for straight dealing.

Restoring public confidence is straightforward if sometimes uncomfortable for those giving the messages. Ministers are entitled to present their actions positively but must avoid overclaiming. They should show leadership by being honest and acting with integrity, and make it clear that they expect everyone working with them to do the same.

Official government communications in particular should not be about spinning headlines or shaping the political narrative. There have been too many cases – most recently the Home Office’s response to a story about the treatment of Afghan refugees or its initial criticism of “activist lawyers” for frustrating immigration deportations, and the Foreign Office’s statement about Dominic Raab’s phone calls during the Afghan crisis – where government resources and Twitter accounts push political or unsubstantiated ‘lines to take’ rather than sharing factual and impartial information.

Better policy making will lead to improved communications

However well managed, no government communications team can obscure poor policy decisions or indecisive leadership. As the pandemic has repeatedly demonstrated, ineffective government messaging is more often the result of confused policies or delayed decisions than bungled communication. Muddles over international travel rules and quarantine, different local and national restrictions or the various school and exam debacles were failures of policy not communication.

And the reverse problem of “government by press release”, where the demands of the media shape policy decisions, leads to superficial initiatives that distract from the underlying problem or the policies that are most likely to work. The government’s Covid messaging improved from February 2021 because ministers worked out a plan for lifting restrictions, set it out clearly and then executed it.

To resolve confused communications the government’s real task is to make sure that policies are clear and thought through, and that senior ministers, special advisers and civil servants across government are involved in and well briefed on what has been decided, why, and what it means. If decision making runs well and relationships are strong, then mishaps will happen less often and be solved rapidly when they do.

Government communications must be about more than No.10 media management

Most of Cain’s recommendations, reflecting his experience, are targeted at improving government press offices and media management. But good government, as he acknowledges, involves taking a wider view of communications.

Making policy that works needs a deep understanding of how people change their behaviour in response to messages from the government. Reforming the NHS or social care means communicating with patients. Reducing carbon emissions will need the government to persuade people to fly less or heat their homes differently. HS2 requires the government to talk to the winners and losers from the multi-billion pound investment. Improving standards in schools needs buy-in from teachers, parents and pupils. It is essential that good policy making incorporates excellent communications.

Evaluation of campaigns needs improving and is too focused on the short term. However embarrassing for ministers, GCS needs to report on the effectiveness of the government’s messaging on fundamental issues like the union, ‘levelling up’ or net zero. That might help focus attention on interventions that move public opinion rather than speeches or visits that have minimal impact.

GCS must also value operational and internal communications more. Developing accessible and accurate information about how public services work across swathes of government activity is resource intensive and cannot be done by a few senior press officers, however talented. Good internal communication is essential to lead, direct and enthuse the more than 400,000 civil servants who work for the government. One reason why Dominic Cummings’ ‘hard rain’ civil service reform plans failed was because he did not bring people along with him.

This is less visible work, and internal or operational communications is not where Whitehall high-fliers build their reputations. So more needs to be done to recruit top quality people, enhance their status and build their skills. Where there are efficiency gains to be made then Cain’s proposal to slim down communication teams should be adopted, but ministers and GCS leaders will regret it if they cut back on important work just because it is less high profile.

The new GCS head will need the authority to challenge the prime minister

There are signs that, although Cain has left the government, his views still echo in Whitehall. The Cabinet Office is recruiting a new GCS chief executive. The post is at director general level, more senior than before, and will manage two executive directors, one leading on campaigning, marketing and digital, the other on professional standards and budgets. Part of the task will be to “ensure departmental communications activity is both aligned and co-ordinated with the PM’s priorities” and to “put digital at the heart of what we do”.

The new recruit will need to turn those aspirations into more than words. They will also sometimes need to remind the prime minister that while poor communications can damage public confidence and a government’s reputation, good communications cannot salvage one whose overall approach is muddled, inconsistent or dishonest. That change is cultural not operational, and must come from the prime minister himself.

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