Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Could I, on behalf of the Committee, welcome our witness this morning, Mike Granatt, who is head of the Government Information and Communication Service. I confess that when we issued an invitation to you we did not know there was going to be quite such an interest in this meeting, but I am sure it is a great gain to all concerned. I wonder if you would like to say something by way of introduction?

  (Mr Granatt) Thank you, yes. I thought as some members of the Committee were new to this topic I would say a little bit about the Service. The GICS, the Government Information and Communication Service, is a network of individuals who are related through their communication specialism. It is a virtual organisation; a member's departmental employer is their current professional residence, and the GICS is their common bond across government. The essential ingredients in our corporate glue is the assessment centre process through which all GICS people are recruited and promoted. Membership of the Service is currently 1094 compared to 1,028 in April 1998. GICS people work in a variety of professional disciplines; a large number work outside Whitehall—about 40 per cent at the last count. Overall, at March 2001, 41 per cent worked in press offices; 22 per cent in marketing communications; and about 18 per cent in multidisciplinary roles. The membership was, and is, evenly split between the sexes and, on the basis of completed returns to a survey, about 4 per cent are known to be from minority ethnic backgrounds. The GICS members' key roles are the same as they have been since the inception of the Service in 1949; this is to create and maintain informed opinion about their department's subjects and work; to use all suitable methods of publicity to help their department achieve its aims and objectives; and to advise their department and the public of the news media's reactions to policies and actions, and to do this in partnership with officials, ministers, the centre and other departments. Since the Mountfield Report in 1997, which reviewed the future of the then Government Information Service, every department has been committed to achieving greater integration of policy and presentation. Communication directorates, which is the general name for the units which make up these operations and departments, continually look at the best way to provide services. They have to evolve to meet the business needs of their clients and be flexible and innovative, and an example of this is our adaptation to the changing nature of government communications environment with the increasing emphasis on electronic and internal communications and communications planning. An important added value of the service is its ability to share and exchange information to ensure we all learn the lessons from the variety of approaches possible. A formal peer review process has recently been introduced to support this, and departments are enthusiastically taking up the opportunity to conduct these reviews. Let me turn to my role. I am situated in the Cabinet Office. My line manager is the head of the Home Civil Service, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson. My role is about the professional leadership of the Service and about making sure we get standards right, recruitment right and propriety right. My door is always open for advice and guidance—and I shall come back to that in a moment—and I always make a point of seeing new senior recruits as soon as possible on joining the Service. We run regular forums for all directors, heads of news and publicity, so that issues can be shared and best practice spread and the new system of peer review will enhance this ability. A team in the Cabinet Office supports me through two deputies. The GICS director of operations focuses on cross-departmental communication activity, and advises on ethical and operational standards across the full range of services provided by the GICS. On that last point, she turns to me continually to ensure that our advice in this area is consistent. The regional news network, which is moving from the COI to the GICS in April, will also come under remit and she is also the manager for the Central Media Monitoring Unit. On the people side of the operation, the deputy head of corporate strategy and human resources focuses on the long term challenges we face, the wider communication mix and the HRSs that we have to resolve in a highly competitive labour market. The GICS development centre, which manages all recruitment, promotion and development issues, reports to her. Professional standards of new recruits are developed through a thorough induction programme. We have a four day foundation course supported by one day courses on both the media liaison side and on communications. We recognise that people need a broad range of support outside formal training. We have just launched a professional mentoring scheme and are finalising a career confidence scheme to support those who are two or three years into their careers. Let me sum up my role, which is essentially fourfold. It concerns the career development of individuals; professional leadership and standards; recruitment and promotion standards and systems; and some central operational support. On behalf of the Head of the Home Civil Service, I am the adviser to departments on propriety in communication work in government. The code in question, as I am sure you know, is the "Guidance on the Work of the Government Information Service", re-issued last in June 1997 on the authority of the Prime Minister. It applies to all civil servants and departments, not just the GICS. I am responsible for the GICS development centre, which is part of the Cabinet Office, and I am responsible for some central operational support. Lastly, sir, in my leadership role I am often required to offer advice and guidance to individuals on matters of personal concern to them, or which they wish to discuss purely privately. In that guise, and in my role as an adviser to departments, I must maintain their trust and confidence that what we discuss privately remains so. I am as accountable to them in this respect as I am to the head of the Civil Service. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will understand why I cannot break confidences of that sort today or at any other time.

  2. Thank you very much for that. Let us just do a bit of scene-setting, if we can. What has been the pattern of numbers on the information side of government over the last few years, since 1997? Are there more information people in government now than there were?
  (Mr Granatt) Yes, there are.

  3. What are the numbers?
  (Mr Granatt) The number now is about 1094; in April 1998 it was 1028. The numbers grew to a peak of around 1200 at the peak of the Civil Service back in the 1970s and dipped away again, and have grown again since then. That reflects, I think, apart from anything else, two things: one is the increasing emphasis on communication work in government which occurred before this administration came to power—there has been a general rise and the environment has changed—and the second thing is the higher churn rate we have faced and have for some time. We knew we were going to face this ten years ago which is why we set up the assessment and recruitment processes, because our members are people who have highly transferable skills; they can move easily around government and in and out of the private sector—and many do.

  4. Just so we are clear, there has been a big growth in the number of special advisers, and these are doing information work. Can you tell us how many of the special advisers are doing information work?
  (Mr Granatt) It is difficult to tell because some advisers operate on policy matters; some advise on presentation and talk to the media—some do both. My guess would be, however, taking into account No 10 and the adviser departments, about half of them. We are talking about 40 people but as I say, that is an imprecise figure.

  5. What is your relationship, if any, with all the communications people inside Downing Street?
  (Mr Granatt) Those who are civil servants are generally members of the GICS, and in that respect are members of my Service. Those who are not GICS members also to an extent talk to us and turn to us on a daily operational basis. The special advisers we have some contact with but essentially the contact inside Downing Street is between the special advisers and the civil servants they work for.

  6. What is your relationship with Alastair Campbell?
  (Mr Granatt) Good.

  7. I was not asking for the quality of it; I was asking for the nature of it!
  (Mr Granatt) I am sorry; there was no intention to be flippant. He is not my line manager, if that is what you are asking. My line manager is the head of the Home Civil Service.

  8. It would be confusing to people not knowing this, that is why I asked the question. Alastair Campbell is now Director of Communications and you are head of the Government Information and Communication Service, so it is a fair question to ask. I have not quite got the answer yet.
  (Mr Granatt) I am sorry. He is responsible for the day-to-day direction of the Government's communication strategy. I am responsible for the professional standards of the Service as it is delivered, and we can deliver it through standards of the members of the GICS. Day-to-day guidance on how issues should be conducted and the general thrust of the Government's communication programme comes from him. To take an analogy, he is on the bridge, he is steering the ship at the direction of the Prime Minister: I am making sure the engine room and the machinery works properly.

  9. So he is more important than you?
  (Mr Granatt) I think he probably thinks so—and I think so too, yes.

  10. In your handbook which you mentioned, in the bit on special advisers, you say that they have been a feature of Whitehall for many years, are essential to the system, they are a temporary civil servant bounded by normal contract . . . Then you say, "but without the ability to manage staff or to run executive operations", but that is not true of the special adviser called Alastair Campbell?
  (Mr Granatt) That being in his domain in Downing Street by virtue of Order in Council he manages that operation, but he in that respect is unique.

  11. But your handbook for members of your staff tells them something quite different?
  (Mr Granatt) Well, with respect, clearly the handbook should, if it was being absolutely complete, mention that point but I do not think that point was drafted before these matters arose. I would not deny at all, however, what you are saying.

  12. You told us about your role in propriety and standards issues and, again, looking at your handbook here, you say that any member of GICS—indeed, any official—can contact your office for advice at any time. Do people regularly come to you and say they have problems in this area?
  (Mr Granatt) It is not a constant flow of people but I would say that we get at particular times when, for instance, elections are running, when the rules are very specific and very carefully looked at, generally to my particular office one or two a week. To my colleagues who are elsewhere in my chain of command there may be some more frequent references. Generally the nature of those references is people saying, "This is what we think the rules say, can you confirm it?", and in 90 per cent of the cases—more than that—I would say they are usually right.

  13. We have evidence here from some years ago from Mr Reardon who was one of the cull in 1997/98 when most information officers lost their jobs, and he says the problem was that all the time special advisers wanted to rewrite their press releases. You are saying this is not the case?
  (Mr Granatt) I did not say that at all. I am not sure that is a matter of propriety. A special adviser works for a minister; a special adviser is entitled to take a view on how a press release is cast; the responsibility for ensuring that the press release meets the rules is that ultimately of the minister, and there is no reason why a special adviser should not take a view that a press release could be differently cast. The question is whether the final product meets the rules. That is the question for me.

  14. But as the guardian of propriety surely the final question for you is are civil servants being asked to do things which civil servants should not be asked to do?
  (Mr Granatt) That pre-supposes that what the special adviser is writing in the press release in the case you mention is something improper. There have been occasions when people have suggested to me, and I think I mentioned this in evidence either to the Committee on Public Standards or this Committee, an instance where, for example—and in this case it had been suggested in this case by a minister—a quote from a constituency MP be written into a press release. In those circumstances my advice was sought and I said that it was not acceptable.

  15. So if civil servants have problems with what they are being asked to do in terms of press, they come to you and tell you they have problems and then you try and sort it out, do you?
  (Mr Granatt) They, of course, would look to their own line management first. If it is a junior person, they would normally look to their own line management; occasionally junior people who want to be confident they are taking a stand they find is difficult may come to us for reassurance that their stand is correct. The guidance on the work of the GICS says specifically that the responsibility for advice within the department to ministers and the head of the department should come from the Head of Information, the Director of Communication, and if they need central advice—either the head of department or ministers or the Head of Information—they are advised to come to me.
  (Mr Granatt) I am sure you get a sense of the cases you read about in the newspapers and whether you have any involvement in this at all—people like the Alan Evans case where people who were asked to do things they did not feel civil servants should be asked to do. Does that come across your desk?
  (Mr Granatt) People will come to me at information officer level if they think they are being asked to do things they should not. Sometimes these are quite complex issues because you are dealing here with grey areas; they come to me and I offer them advice and, if necessary, I offer that advice directly to a minister, a minister's office or a permanent secretary.

  16. Has the DTLR been a particular source of difficulty?
  (Mr Granatt) In propriety terms? Not particularly.

  17. You were a bit tentative there—
  (Mr Granatt) Well, if you are talking other terms, there have been individuals in that department because of the difficulties they faced who have talked to my staff and to me about how they think they should tackle particular problems between them and other individuals, and we have offered advice.

  18. I realise you are not going to go into the ins and outs of particular cases but can you tell us, in a nutshell, why Martin Sixsmith had to go?
  (Mr Granatt) I refer you to the letter I wrote as to my opinion of what happened. As to why he had to go, I think I have to refer you to the department. If Martin is leaving the employment of the department then that is a matter between him and the department—not for me.

  19. I am looking at your letter here to him and you say, "I hope this letter already echoes what you have said to your staff", so at that point you were all on the same side. I do not quite understand what, then, caused him to go?
  (Mr Granatt) I really do think, sir, that I have to refer you to the Department and the Secretary of State's statement yesterday as well. That is a matter on which you would be best to ask them. I am not in possession of all the facts, nor am I responsible on whether he should or should not go. That is a disciplinary matter for the Department.

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