Former UK communications chief blames civil servants for poor pandemic messaging

By on 09/09/2021 | Updated on 10/09/2021
Boris Johnson has been criticised for making conflicting statements during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Pippa Fowles, courtesy No.10 Downing Street via Flickr

Downing Street’s former director of communications, Lee Cain, has blamed civil servants for the mixed messages the public received during the Covid-19 pandemic, and reaffirmed his call for a major shake-up that would see the communications profession centralised and staff numbers slashed.

In a white paper published by the Institute for Government (IfG) on 4 September, Cain said the team of communications professionals based in the Cabinet Office to assist in the crisis “was a failure due to inexperienced staff and unclear lines of responsibility”, that policy development was inconsistent and leaking “endemic”.

He added that the first iteration of the Covid campaign had to be scrapped and restarted with outside expertise and that there was no coherent social media campaign or data-visualisation capability in the early days of the pandemic.

“Put starkly,” Cain said, “there was nobody with the ability to create slides for the daily press conference – and even when a system was designed, people struggled with the skills required, and slides were often sent only moments before press conferences were due to begin.”

This resulted in the public receiving mixed messages at a critical time, damaging the government’s Covid response, he said.

The government has been criticised for its mixed messaging throughout the pandemic, which included prime minister Boris Johnson disregarding his government’s own advice and having to row back on statements that gave citizens false hope.

Claims “misleading”

A government spokesperson labelled Cain’s claims “misleading”. Throughout the pandemic, they said, “we have set out clear, targeted and effective communications to help the public protect themselves, directly preventing millions of infections and saving thousands of lives”.  

In the IfG’s response to Cain’s white paper, Alex Thomas, the think tank’s programme director, agreed that government communications need an overhaul but that “however well managed, no government communications team can obscure poor policy decisions or indecisive leadership”.  

Cain made no critique of communications professionals individually and described those who worked at No.10 during the height of the pandemic as “some of the most dedicated public servants I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside”. It is the system that is failing, he said, rather than the individuals themselves.

His assessment of the government’s communications failures is not restricted to its pandemic response. The system “is failing in many of its most basic functions due to its overwhelming size, unclear command and control structures, and inability to understand and implement modern communications methods,” he said. In addition, many departments are unable to build constructive relationships with journalists or rebut inaccurate stories. “These are critical requirements that go unfulfilled.”

Reform needed

Cain noted his concern that despite falling standards, the communications headcount had ballooned. When he joined as communications director in summer 2019, he was told the government employed roughly 4,000 communicators. However, he said a subsequent audit uncovered more than double this number.  

“A great many communications professionals do not deliver value for money. It is unquestionable that the government could deliver a higher-quality output with fewer members of staff,” Cain said.

He believes the system would benefit from “real expertise” in a new centralised Government Communications Service (GCS) and a “dramatic cut” in personnel so that no department has more than 30 or 40 communications staff. Some departments currently have hundreds.

He added that press officers should be journalists’ primary contacts rather than special advisors, on which there had been an over-reliance, and that there is a need for improved training and a move “from an analogue to a digital system”. The latter would be overseen by a proposed director general for marketing and digital.

Plans to centralise

It was first reported that the UK government planned to centralise control of departmental communications under Cain in July 2020. The plans drew criticism from various factions. The government also planned to introduce daily televised press briefings, though the idea was later scrapped.

Cain served as the government’s communications chief between July 2019 and late 2020, when he resigned following a spat with influential figures in the Tory party, including Johnson’s now wife Carrie Symonds. He is a close ally of the PM’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

The Cabinet Office is in the process of recruiting a new director-general-level GCS chief executive.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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