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Tuesday 14 July 2020

Penman warns government comms reforms ‘clearly about control’

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Responding to plans to overhaul government communications, with all departmental teams moving under a new “single employer model”, FDA General Secretary Dave Penman has warned the reforms are “clearly all about control” from No. 10.

While the full details of the plans are still unclear, initial reports suggested that departmental teams could be forced down to a maximum of 30 staff and would be line-managed by the Cabinet Office instead of individual departments. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson has since confirmed that work has begun that will look at moving to a single employer for the communications service.

Following these initial reports, Penman told Politico that “this is a dramatic curtailment of the power of departments and their ministers to control their own communications”.

“Taken together with the central control of special advisers, this further diminishes the role of ministers,” he explained. “Only last week, Dominic Cummings was quoted as saying: ‘Anybody who has read what I’ve said about management over the years will know that it’s ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall’s problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation’ - quite how that fits with this is anyone’s guess. Coordination of the government’s communications is obviously vital, but this move - as with the management of special advisers - is clearly about control. If I was a cabinet minister I’d be fuming.”

The FDA General Secretary described the way in which the announcement was handled as a “destructive act”, with details leaked to the press from unattributed Downing Street sources meaning that thousands of government communications staff found out about the plans from reading the paper as opposed to direct dialogue with their employers.

In his latest column for Civil Service World, Penman took aim at whoever leaked the proposed reforms for having no consideration for its impact on the civil servants directly affected by it.

“Anonymous briefing, whether against individuals or in this case about an organisational change, has become par for the course with this government.” Penman wrote. “As Sir Mark Sedwill said in his evidence to the National Security Strategy Committee this week, civil servants have become “fair game”. It’s just another notch on the gotcha belt for someone who got their way, got their headline and doesn’t have to deal with or care about the consequences. Meanwhile, those tasked with the critical role of delivering effective communication in the middle of a public health and economic emergency, are left to ponder whether they have a job, a career or even matter to ministers.”

He also reinforced the message that this government “sees control from No. 10 as critical to its operation and success”, as we have already seen with the centralisation of SpAds under Boris Johnson’s premiership.

“Special advisers are centrally managed from No.10 and now routinely moved between ministers, further undermining the independence of ministers which is so vital for cabinet government. Controlling the message is clearly just the next extension of this,” he concluded.

The FDA is now working with departments on how these reforms will look in practice and will be directly engaging with the Cabinet Office on the plans. We understand this is a concerning time for all government communications staff, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with your local branch, National Officer or centrally via info@fda.org.uk. Additionally, if you are not a member of the FDA, you can join here.

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