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21 July 2020

Here’s the problem with Dominic Cummings’ plan to shake-up government comms

The plans don’t appear to fully engage with what government communications actually involves.  

By Ailbhe Rea

Of all of Dominic Cummings’ proposed plans to shake-up Whitehall, the one causing the most palpable jitters among civil servants is not the most heavily-publicised.

Well, that isn’t strictly true. The biggest cause of worry among civil servants remains the untimely departures of many of Whitehall’s permanent secretaries under this administration, including the most senior, Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, which saw him replaced as national security adviser by a political appointee with limited security experience. It is, civil servants fear, the beginning of a quiet, steady devaluation of the impartial, typically long-serving and experienced figures who serve the government of the day without fear or favour, free to offer honest and impartial advice without being compromised by the vagaries of party politics. 

But on a more prosaic level, the issue preoccupying mandarins is the proposed reform of government communications: not only the planned move to a televised White House-style press conference, but the arguably more significant plan to cut back communications units across Whitehall. 

At the moment, there are around 4,000 communications staff working across more than 20 government departments. The plan is to make individual departments scale back their comms teams to a maximum of 30 people, overseen by four new directors general who will operate centrally. The size of departments varies massively, but the difference is stark: a reduction from an average of 200 people per department, to just 30.

“A hard rain is coming” to the civil service, Dominic Cummings reportedly told political advisers last month, and this is where the rain is perceived to be falling the hardest. It is, the government argues, an attempt to make government communications more streamlined, smoother, to coordinate the key government messages across departments while offering “value for money”, as a Number 10 official said. 

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But to civil servants, the plan is simply ludicrous. Government communications is far more than simply press officers, it is literally about all forms of communication with the outside world relevant to the department’s remit. The scope is huge and very different across departments, from the Department for Transport’s THINK! road safety communications campaign targeted at male drivers aged 17-24 who had recently passed their test, a group at high risk of being killed or seriously injured on the road, to the government-owned British Business Bank’s communications team’s work engaging small and medium enterprises in the availability of external loans. 

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There are times when the communications team within a department sounds out the relevant stakeholders while developing a policy, be that vets or fishermen or children’s charities (sometimes the policy staff in a department do this consultation themselves), to the communications effort when a new policy is introduced, such as the Cabinet Office’s advertising and social media campaign to tell people that they will need to get their pets vaccinated when they travel to the EU in future. Then there are the press officers with departmental expertise who are available to clarify the policy to journalists and respond to precise criticisms or queries, but, as you can tell, this is barely the tip of the communications iceberg.

It is hard to fathom how a massively reduced staff will be able to carry out all of the same work, more efficiently, while funnelling all of it through the bottleneck of a centralised sign-off system. It stems, one might conclude, from more of an ideological commitment to curbing the size of Whitehall, than to a practical belief in the increased efficiency of the change. The experienced campaigners inside Downing Street may believe that fewer, better campaigns are the way to go, but ultimately, the Department for Transport still needs to find a way to connect with young men who are disproportionately likely to die on the road, just as governmental organisations need to find a way to tell people about minor changes to the way things are or new options available to them, even if it doesn’t fall within the government’s top priorities or more glamorous aspirations. 

But there’s also the wider political significance of the change. It is a dramatic curtailment of the power of individual departments, which, in turn, clips the wings of its Secretary of State. If cabinet ministers have less direct control over policy delivery, in combination with the increased centralisation of advisers, it inevitably produces the “under-powered cabinet” and over-powered central team of advisers that William Hague warned against.

Many of the criticisms of the civil service by this and previous governments are fair and, indeed, shared by many civil servants themselves. This move, however, doesn’t appear to address them. As with many of the other changes in the pipeline, this is much less about efficiency than it is about power, over both the Whitehall machine and, it seems, the cabinet.