Number 10 moves to take control of UK departmental press teams

By on 06/07/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Following the use of daily coronavirus briefings, UK PM Boris Johnson intends to introduce daily TV calls by a newly-appointed No10 spokesman. (Photo by No 10 Downing Street via flickr).

The UK government is planning to centralise control of departmental communications and introduce daily televised press briefings, according to reports published in The Times and Financial Times newspapers. 

The reports said that No10, the UK prime minister’s office in Downing Street, intends to limit departments’ press teams to a maximum size of 30 employees and introduce a new system whereby all communications teams are managed by four newly appointed directors general in the Cabinet Office, rather than by senior managers in their own departments. 

The introduction of the daily televised briefings has so far attracted the most attention, but Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government (IfG) and a former senior civil servant, said that the centralisation of government communications had much wider implications.

Can the centre hold?

Writing on the IfG’s website, Rutter said: “The first of the new televised No.10 press conferences will be a big moment, but it could well be a temporary fixture if it becomes too embarrassing or is a ratings flop. 

“But the far more significant change is the shake-up of government comms, which would see No10 tighten its grip on the entire machine. The last time this happened was when New Labour came to power in 1997 and Alastair Campbell, as Tony Blair’s director of communications, culled a lot of existing government information officers, brought in new faces, professionalised the operation and hauled processes into the late 20th century.”

According to Rutter, the plan is to bring all government communications under the joint control of the prime minister’s new No10 permanent secretary, Simon Case, and his director of communications Lee Cain. 

“The approach may work for some of the smaller departments but others, such as the Department of Health, can be dealing with a half a dozen front page stories on a daily basis,” she said. “Others have complicated lists of stakeholders and specialist outlets. No10 may not want to be worrying about Farming Today – but it matters to [the environment department] Defra and its constituency.”

Responsibility without power?

Rutter added that she was troubled by the idea that permanent secretaries would lose control of their departments’ press teams under the plan. “Directors of communications have always worked to their secretaries of state,” she said. “That will now change, with a new system run by No10. This might also cut out any role for the permanent secretary in challenging the propriety of the actions of the communications teams.” In the UK, departmental press officers are barred from making overtly political comments, restricting themselves to communicating the deparment’s policies and positions; and the permanent secretary ultimately holds responsibility for their compliance with these rules.

However, Rutter said that the biggest risk was that communications becomes “more detached from policy making and implementation”. She said: “It used to be that comms teams were handed a fully developed policy with no prior involvement. This government’s big flaw has been the reverse – announcement after announcement with no plan to deliver.”

From the Treasury to Whitehall

Martin Curtis, associate director at public affairs firm Curtin & Co, told GGF that he had been expecting communications to be centralised ever since Boris Johnson became prime minister last year. “This one has been coming since Boris came to power,” he said, adding that Sajid Javid’s February resignation as chancellor after being asked to sack his special advisers made the move all but inevitable.

“If you look at the dispute that led to Rishi Sunak becoming chancellor, that was largely down to No10 wanting more control of Treasury staff. [Javid’s people] were special advisers, but special advisers work very closely with the comms function.”

Curtis added that he understood why No10 would want to establish greater control over communications, but said that centralisation was not the answer. “I get the need to change it, but there are other ways of dealing with that,” he said. “A lot of foreign governments have a policy where no employee of the government or a minister is allowed to speak anonymously. If you legally stopped anonymous briefings a lot of it would end. That is the practice in a lot of places.”

Right direction; extend the scope

In other developments, on Friday the IfG published a short paper by the organisation’s director, Bronwen Maddox, commenting on the UK government’s plans to reform the civil service. 

The paper is broadly supportive of the government’s stance, urging it to prioritise clarifying the roles of cabinet secretary and chief operating officer, and to change the way officials are paid and promoted to “discourage constant movement between jobs and encourage the accumulation of knowledge and expertise”.

However, Maddox also wrote that the reforms should also cover the skills and working practices of ministers. “We would also welcome emphasis on increasing awareness among ministers of the need to develop their own skills and establishing similar rigour in holding them to account for policies and delivery,” she said.

Maddox added that “simplifying overlapping or competing public sector organisations as in health, social care, planning, local government, transport” should also be high on the government’s agenda. “Government is complex but its structures do not have to be incomprehensible,” she said.

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