some default text...
Government Communications - Communications Committee Contents


CHAPTER 3: CHANGES TO GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATIONS

The Mountfield Report

35.  The Government implemented many of the recommendations in the 1997 Mountfield Report (see paragraph 9). For example, a Strategic Communications Unit was set up in Number 10, answerable to the Prime Minister and working through the Chief Press Secretary. The Government also implemented reforms to the Lobby system, including on-the-record briefings and attributable sources. In addition, it encouraged closer co-operation between departmental press officers and special advisers. The Government Information Service was renamed the Government Information and Communications Service (GICS) in order to reflect a new focus on two-way dialogue with the public.

Government innovation in communication

36.  We also note that this Government has established new ways of communicating. These include the Prime Minister's twice-yearly appearances before the House of Commons Liaison Committee; the Prime Minister's monthly press briefing; 'Ask the PM' (which allows citizens to submit their own video questions to the Prime Minister); and 'E-Petitions' (a system for submitting online public petitions).

From GICS to GCN

37.  The Government accepted many of the Phillis Review's recommendations. GICS was replaced by a stronger central structure, called the Government Communications Network (GCN). GCN incorporated all communications disciplines, not just press officers. In addition, the Government accepted that GCN should be led by a Permanent Secretary, based in the Cabinet Office and reporting directly to the Head of the Home Civil Service.

38.  In his evidence to us, Howell James (who held the position of Permanent Secretary, Government Communications from July 2004 until June 2008) outlined his vision for the role and described it as "head of profession for all government communications … taking on the senior Civil Service leadership for all government communicators [and] responsible for the professionalising agenda across government for the communicators". He went on to say that his focus was on "cross-government comms activity—not the sort of short term news management stuff that Number Ten tends to focus on, but some of the longer term planning activity, which also touched on counter terrorism, crisis management, foot-and-mouth, avian flu, pandemic flu planning" (Q 34).

Number 10

39.  The Government accepted the Phillis Review's recommendations for restructuring communications at Number 10. The post of Director of Communications was split in two, with a politically appointed Director of Communications, and a career civil servant as the Prime Minister's Spokesperson. The Order in Council allowing the politically appointed Director of Communications to direct civil servants was revoked, in June 2007.

40.  The current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, subsequently combined both roles into one position—the Prime Minister's Spokesperson, who is still a civil servant, currently Michael Ellam. He told us that "as well as being the Prime Minister's spokesman I am the Director of Communications in Downing Street and that means I have responsibility for managing the civil service staff in Downing Street who deal with communications" (Q 474). Sir Robert told us this change did not concern him "providing that that centre has the strong Permanent Secretary and professional leadership of the civil servants working to the Cabinet Office and therefore Number Ten" (Q 30).

Regional Government communications

41.  Recent changes within regional Government communications fall broadly into two main areas. First, the Government has its own regional news service, which at the time of the Phillis Review was called the Government News Network (GNN) and based in the Cabinet Office. In 2005, GNN was moved to the Central Office of Information (COI), restructured and renamed the News Distribution Service (NDS). The NDS now has regional directors in all nine English regions, as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In many cases they are co-located within the regional Government Office, in an attempt to improve co-ordination of Government communications between Whitehall, the devolved nations and the English regions.

42.  The second area of change is within central Government departments. In its written submission, the Cabinet Office said that "the way that departments deal with the regional media is changing. Many departments now have dedicated regional press officers who work closely with regional media on issues of importance to the local area. They are responsible for working with national colleagues to deliver key information around rights and responsibilities." The Government points to a number of examples, such as at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), where 45 members of staff volunteer to act as spokespeople on local radio, answering questions on all aspects of HMRC operations from filling in a self-assessment form to paying the national minimum wage (p 126).

Government statistics

43.  The most important reform in this area has been the creation of an independent United Kingdom Statistics Authority[36], which was established by statute[37] as a non-ministerial department in order to depoliticise the release of official statistics. It oversees the release of all official statistics by the Office for National Statistics and reports directly to Parliament. The Cabinet Office states that the Statistics Authority's Code of Practice for Statistics "will reinforce the existing requirement that the release of all official statistics should be pre-announced one year ahead, with the exact date of release announced either six months ahead (in the case of market-sensitive statistics), or one month ahead (in the case of other official statistics)" (p 126).

Freedom of Information

44.  In this inquiry we have not focussed on the Government's implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (which came into force on 1 January 2005). However, it was considered by the Phillis Review, and some witnesses did raise the issue with us. The Review stated that FOI "offers a real opportunity to make government at every level more accountable, breaking the current culture of secrecy and partial disclosure of information which is at the root of many of the problems we have examined"[38] and that "when implementing the main provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the overriding presumption should be to disclose".[39]

Training and support for Government communicators

45.  The GCN has been mandated to improve communications within the civil service, as well as providing new tools for supporting civil servants to improve their own communication skills. It has established two programmes to achieve this aim, Engage and Evolve. The first programme, Engage, was launched in April 2006 as a best practice communications planning model and guide, which allows staff to identify their audiences and tailor messages suited to that audience. The second programme, Evolve, began in March 2007, and is an interactive professional development framework designed to improve skills and strengthen both recruitment and training across departments (p 122). Sir Robert Phillis was supportive and commented that Evolve "involves a comprehensive programme of recruitment, a selection of training … of testing one's own skills … combined with a sensible and judicious bringing in from private sector of skills in that area" (Q 20).

Online communication

46.  Growth in the use and popularity of the internet over the past few years has opened up opportunities for the Government to supply information directly to the public in a cost-effective manner. We recognise the considerable progress the Government has made in harnessing the potential of online communication to improve and increase communications directly with the public. As one way of achieving better communication of information to the public, the Phillis Review advocated one central Government website "within which the output of the various different departments and agencies can be found."[40]

47.  The Government accepted this recommendation and launched the Directgov website (www.directgov.uk). This website was designed to provide a single point of access to public sector information and services. It contains information from 18 different Government departments and is structured from the point of view of users. Users therefore do not need to know the structure of government in order to find the information they want (p 125).

Conclusion

48.  Sir Robert told us that members of the Review were pleased with the Government's "very speedy response" to their recommendations (Q 21). We, too, welcome and acknowledge the aspects of the Phillis Review that have been properly and fully implemented. Nevertheless, Sir Robert told us there were areas of his report "where perhaps all that we had hoped for has not been achieved" (Q 22). The purpose of the rest of this report, therefore, is to consider in what areas there is still need for improvement.


36   Known, legally, as the Statistics Board. Back

37   Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Back

38   Phillis Review, p.23. Back

39   Ibid., p.4. Back

40   Ibid., p.26. Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009