Select Committee on Public Administration Eighth Report

Following Number Ten's New Tone

  1. There are few "media" special advisers (just eleven of the 81 advisers are engaged "primarily in the area of communications" which may include some who do not regularly brief the media),[35] but the challenges they pose to the effective management of the public service and the potential damage to the reputation of the Government are out of all proportion to that number and to their contribution. The controversy they attract is also a potential distraction from the central task of building and maintaining a professional Government Information and Communication Service that will meet the growing needs of Ministers and the public.
  2. The Prime Minister has recently set a new tone, making radical and welcome changes to the arrangements for briefings by his official spokesman, with a greater emphasis on "on-the-record" press briefings, mostly provided by professional civil servants. The transcripts of Number 10 lobby briefings now appear on the internet. This represents good progress towards greater openness and accountability, but more now needs to be done across Whitehall to bolster public confidence in government communications.
  3. Speaking with One Voice

  4. In considering our recommendations, we recognise that it would be naïve to imagine that the clock can be turned back. Both career civil servants and special advisers are today seen on public platforms to an extent that would surprise the officials of 30 or 40 years ago. Their speeches are regularly quoted in the media and journalists have a much higher level of access than they once enjoyed. Some contacts between special advisers and the media are inevitable, and they can be helpful. But there are always dangers, for people and for institutions, in allowing two voices to emerge from a single department, and the case of DTLR demonstrates them very well. In a significant sentence, Sir Richard Mottram said of Ms Moore that she had to go "because she was the story".[36] Special advisers and career civil servants have become fair game, exposed as never before to media scrutiny. This situation represents a challenge to the management of Government communications and Government departments that needs to be addressed robustly and soon.
  5. Reviewing Government Communications

  6. We recognise that one of the main driving forces behind the introduction of media special advisers from 1997 was the perception that GICS and other permanent civil servants were not skilled or proactive enough in their approach to communications. We consider that the central aim should be to improve and maintain professional standards among the career civil servants of the GICS. As we have seen, special advisers have not in themselves been the answer to the service's problems.
  7. The Government has recently announced that it would provide more guidance "on the respective and complementary roles of information officers and special advisers employed on media related activities". We welcome the Government's action, but it needs to go further.
  8. There is a need, first, for a sustainable improvement in the quality of the service provided by the permanent civil servants in the GICS. In the Committee's Sixth Report of 1997-98, it recommended an efficiency scrutiny for the GICS. There have been a number of changes to the GICS since then, and Mr Granatt was able to point to some improvements. But the climate for the GICS is constantly changing , and there are major new challenges on the way, including the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. There needs to be continued pressure to achieve and sustain high levels of performance. A wide-ranging, objective, external look at the quality of the GICS is now necessary. The last major examination of this kind was carried out by Sir Robin Mountfield five years ago,[37] and a new review, by an expert from outside the GICS, would be timely.
  9. The review should also examine the roles of all others, both civil servants and special advisers, who have a role in communications. The functions of the Director of Communications at No 10 Downing Street (currently Alastair Campbell, a special adviser) should also come within the scope of the review. Mr Campbell recently took over the supervision of the Government's major communications agency, the Central Office of Information, an arrangement which represents a major extension of the reach of the special adviser system. As Mike Granatt of the GICS told us: some special advisers "advise on presentational strategy and planning".[38] The precise roles of these advisers, though not as prominent as those of the advisers whose primary task it is to brief the media, need to be understood much more clearly.
  10. We believe that, five years after the Mountfield Report examined the operation of government information services, a radical external review of Government communications would be of great value, and we so recommend. The review should examine not only the effectiveness of the Government Information and Communication Service, but also the roles played by other civil servants and special advisers who have a responsibility for communications. This should clarify the boundaries between the work that is appropriate to special advisers and work that is not appropriate to them.
  11. An interesting feature of this matter is the revelation of the widespread use of e-mail. This is likely to increase and develop as new technologies arise. These developments have widespread implications for the working of government and adds hugely to the amount of material which is now on the public record. It is an issue which we cannot tackle in full in this report but which will require further scrutiny.
  12. Recruitment and Training of Special Advisers

  13. While the competence of the career civil servants in the GICS needs to be reviewed, there are also legitimate questions to be asked over the capacity of special advisers. They are unique as civil servants in not having to prove their merit before appointment. In the Committee's Fourth Report of 2000-01 it recommended that there should be public advertisements for special adviser posts, with a final choice between suitably qualified candidates left to the Minister. We returned to the point in out Third Report of the current session,[39] noting the decision of the First Minister in Wales to adopt this procedure when appointing his special advisers. The events at DTLR have further reinforced the need for public reassurance that public money is being spent wisely, and a more transparent appointment system would be one move in that direction.
  14. The apparent lack of training for special advisers also gives us concern. It is worrying that people in such sensitive and sometimes prominent positions are not, as a matter of course, provided with training in the workings of the Civil Service and of government, and the standards expected of public servants. Sir Andrew Turnbull, the incoming Cabinet Secretary, giving evidence to us, said that special advisers "just turn up on the coat-tails of a minister and that is it, they either sink or swim".[40] The Government, in its recent evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has recognised this problem, acknowledging that special advisers have little support or training in their relationships with permanent civil servants and Whitehall departments. The Government announced in that evidence that the Centre for Management and Policy Studies is designing "induction training specifically to help new special advisers understand better these relationships". This is a very welcome development, although we hope that some form of continuing training could also be provided for existing advisers to keep them up to date with public service issues.

  16.  We re-iterate the recommendation of the Committee in its Fourth Report of 2000-01 that special adviser posts should be publicly advertised and Ministers given a final choice between suitably qualified candidates. We welcome the Government's intention to provide induction training for new special advisers, and urge that existing advisers should be also kept up to date with developments in public service through a programme of continuing training, with a special focus on the machinery of government and the standards expected of public servants.
  17. When Things Go Wrong: The Need for a Better System

  18. It is also our view that one of the keys to the problems of DTLR was the weakness of the system for dealing with disputes between special advisers and career civil servants. However his actions are judged, it is clear that Sir Richard Mottram had a problem in managing the case of Jo Moore that was not of his own making. Management lines were unclear. He could discipline her, as he did, but in the final analysis any decision on dismissal was a political one. The dual control of special advisers did not work properly. The Prime Minister had a potential role, but did not play it, and few, if any, people seem to have realised that he could play it.
  19. In our view, DTLR's problem was a very rare case, but it may not be unique. The department certainly suffered an exceptionally serious breakdown in working relationships; inevitably, working relationships in many organisations break down from time to time. But good management systems are able to cope; at DTLR, the Whitehall system was found wanting. We consider that management would find it very hard to resolve similar difficulties if they occurred in future at another department. The underlying problem lies with the uncertainties that surround the governance of special advisers, the lack of clarity about boundary lines, and the deficiencies of current procedures for handling boundary problems. The Government needs to remove these uncertainties. A Civil Service Act, such as the one currently being drafted by this Committee, could include such clarification.
  20. We recommend that the Government should review the system for handling disputes which may arise between Ministers, special advisers and career civil servants. This should in future make clear who has final responsibility for disciplinary matters and should also clarify the role of the Prime Minister in the process of resolving disagreements involving special advisers.
  21. Freedom of Information

  22. The principle of greater openness also needs nurturing in the area of freedom of information. There seems to be little interest in assessing the likely impact of the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act on Government communications. This is despite the fact that, for all the shortcomings of the Act, it could in time represent a major challenge to the ethos of secrecy that has long been established in Whitehall, starting with the obligation to produce publication schemes . It would be a missed opportunity if these schemes were allowed to dribble out without proper publicity. We consider that departments should be obliged to draw up a plan showing how they will publicise the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act in their own areas of responsibility.
  23. Wider Issues—Playing it Straight

  24. This Report concentrates on communications issues, but it also touches on the wider theme of special advisers. The most recent controversy about the activities of a special adviser in DTLR and the current inquiry into executive boundaries by the Committee on Standards in Public Life have again attracted attention to the issues. We will return to them in due course.
  25. We offer one final comment. The issue of 'spin' has dogged the life of this Government. There is a terrible predictability about the fact that the events discussed here arose in the area of news management, and involved a special adviser employed for this purpose. Yet this is part of a wider picture in which sections of the media engage in systematic spin and news management of their own. The result of this mutual spinning war is immensely damaging to public life and to trust in the political process. The remedy is a simple one. Governments should play it straight, and the media should play it fair. The unfortunate events of the kind described here would then be less likely to occur.


'Special Advisers: Boon or Bane: The Government's Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2000-01' Third Report 2001-02 HC 463, p viii Back

36   HC 303-ii, Q 264 Back

37   'Report to the Working Group on the Government Information Service' Cabinet Office (Office of Public Service) November 1997 Back

38   HC 303-i, GI 4 Back

39   HC 463 Back

40   HC 1049-i, Q 27 Back

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