GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATION AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST
- One of the essential tasks of government is to provide honest, reliable and accurate information. The range of government communications work today is immense, from policy announcements to emergency and public health information, and all of it must be credible. Recent cases such as BSE and the 2000 fuel crisis show that a crisis in government communications rapidly becomes a crisis in government.
- Those who are responsible for government communications therefore have a vital role in serving the public interest. The series of "unfortunate events" which occurred in the former Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions between September 2001 and May 2002 showed how sensitive this role can be. They resulted in the departures of a director of communications, a special adviser and, eventually, a cabinet minister; later came the abolition of the department itself
- The Committee has examined why these events happened, and this Report sets out our conclusions. It also makes some recommendations concerning the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS) and others involved in delivering government information to the public.
The Committee's Previous Reports
- Early in the last Parliament the Committee conducted an inquiry into the GICS, at a time of insistent Government demands that the Service should "raise its game". The expanded and sometimes controversial role of ministerially-appointed special advisers in briefing the media was another theme of the inquiry, and of a subsequent inquiry on special advisers generally. We have also taken evidence on GICS annual reports.
- In recent years the Government has put in place a number of measures to regulate the work of special advisers, including a code which includes guidance on dealing with the media. However, the recent problems in DTLR, described in outline in the next Chapter, show that there is still the potential for confusion and turbulence.
Learning the Lessons
- We have not sought to carry out a detailed dissection of all the events at DTLR, nor to apportion blame to individuals. We took evidence from six witnesses, but did not seek evidence from all the protagonists. Our aim instead has been to review the events in the round and identify the most important lessons for the Civil Service and for Government. DTLR may have been unusual and unlucky in the extent of the difficulties it encountered, but its travails revealed a disturbing number of generic weaknesses in the management of government communications. There is a continuing possibility that similar problems will arise elsewhere in Whitehall, and the Government needs to address the issues with vigour if it is to prevent a repetition. The lessons from these events must be learned.
1 Statement Agreed by Martin Sixsmith and the DTLR, 7 May 2002 Back
2 'The Government Information and Communication Service' Sixth Report 1997-98 HC 770 Back
3 'Special Advisers: Boon or Bane?' Fourth Report 2000-01 HC 293 Back