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Bonfire of the Spin Doctors? No Chance!

August 11, 2013

Back in ancient Pompeii, the subject of my last post, if you had something to communicate, you did so with your voice, or you wrote on a papyrus scroll or a little wooden tablet covered with wax. If you wanted to make a public pronouncement, you made a speech. If the information was important enough, it might be carved in stone for all to read. If you were an emperor wishing to spin his achievements, you might put a coded message on the back of the coins you issued. And if you were the ancient equivalent of an internet troll, you scrawled graffiti on a wall.

In the former Roman province of Britannia, the business of communications has flourished beyond the dreams of the average Pompeian citizen.

I was truly shocked the other day when the London Times reported that the UK government employs 3,500 communications staff. The total spend on staff is around $750 million, with the same amount spent on “communications work including campaigns and advertising”. So that’s $1.5 billion in total – as much as the gross domestic product of a small nation.

As far as I’m aware, that sum doesn’t include spend by local government. So let’s say that each of the 432 local authorities employs an average of three officers responsible for communications; then we can add another 1,200 staff to the list. And what about the 700-odd quangos that have survived the current government austerity cull? If each employs a single communications officer, then between all the bodies funded by the taxpayer we’re looking at in excess of 5,000 people, not including the consultants hired to deliver specific campaigns.

Now the last thing I want to see is diligent government workers thrown out of their jobs, but for goodness sake, at a time when we Brits are asked to tighten our belts, can’t we make do with a little less communication? If householders can cope with their refuse being collected every two weeks instead of every week, surely we can deal with the government keeping its mouth shut one week in two.

Much of the time, I have no idea what these people are communicating and to whom. I have a vision of rooms full of Malcolm Tuckers (for the uninitiated, Tucker is the foul-mouthed spin master in the BBC’s comedy series about the dark arts, The Thick of It ) scouring their calendars in an effort to figure out when would be “a good day to bury bad news” as one spin doctor famously remarked on 9/11.

The Times suggests that the Prime Minister is planning to bring all government communications staff under its direct control. The justification given by government sources is – surprise, surprise – efficiency. According to the report:

The Prime Minister wants to get better value for money by creating a single professional network of skilled staff capable of being “trouble-shooters” in any department when there is a crisis or extra work.

“We now have a comms team employed by each department but we want to give them much more flexibility so that they can move in and out of other departments when needed,” said one Whitehall source. “We want more skilled operators under a single employer … to drive up standards and get the Government’s message across. Lots of press officers are extremely good but work to different standards.”

I have no problem with the idea that quiescent departments can do without permanent spin doctors. But it’s very easy to see where this is going, and I’m not sure it’s the right direction. The next step will be a Ministry of Information, that entity beloved of governments for which information is a weapon rather than a right. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry come to mind.

The obsession with presentation is everywhere in Britain’s political life. It determines the government’s policies and those of the opposition. It is often the criterion on which politicians are found wanting. In an op-ed piece also in the Times, Rafael Behr, the Political Editor of the New Statesman takes Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, to task for failing to assert himself, and his party for failing to come up with the kind of big ideas that will win the next election. Well yes, that’s adversarial politics. You wouldn’t expect Miliband do say that the current lot are doing a good job.

But I felt sorry for Stephen Twigg, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, whom Behr nominates for the chop simply because he has “failed to unsettle Michael Gove” (the current Education Secretary). Poor Mr Twigg would probably make a competent and diligent education minister. His crime is that his opposite number is one of the higher profile ministers whose reforms have attracted much public attention – both negative and positive. The onus is therefore on Twigg to come up with a series of eye-catching ideas – whether he believes in them or not – that discredit Gove’s policies. And Gove’s job is to use all those spin doctors in his department to defend his reforms.

So the debate is all about ideas, an ever-flowing river of them, rather than competence. About the personalities of those who promote them, rather than their ability to execute.

You might think all this is kid’s stuff – an ABC of politics – and you’d be right.

But I do find it worrying that politicians and civil servants outsource the task of communications to others in the same way as managers outsource key aspects of their jobs – dealing with people – to armies of HR staff. The Civil Service has a rigorous selection process designed to produce effective government employees with a wide range of skills and capabilities including, presumably, the ability to communicate. Why, therefore, do they need an army of communicators to do the communicating for them?

And do we really need the blizzard of information blown in our direction by government departments anxious to endure that we “get the message”.

Freedom of information is fine and dandy, but when we get it spun at us in such a way as to make it difficult to see the wood from the trees, surely we have to conclude that there are times when less is more. Is it really necessary to have to rely upon journalists and analysts to interpret everything for us because stuff we really need to know lies buried in 500-page documents no ordinary citizen is going to bother to read?

This is not just a rant. Consider the government budget statement, in which Gordon Brown during many years as Finance Minister, made an art form of burying his stealth taxes in the small print. In the private sector think of the late unlamented Enron in the US, whose regulatory filings were as long as the bible, yet contained hints of the illegal transactions that might have been exposed before thousands of people had to lose their jobs if analysts had been bothered to pick up on them.

The trouble with maintaining such a huge army of “professional communicators” is that the government of the day has a vested interest in keeping the numbers up. How otherwise will they justify the dubious and sometimes downright unjustifiable policies that lurk in the bureaucratic undergrowth? If they can be booted out of office every five years, why wouldn’t they use all resources available to them to shore up their reputation for competence?

So if the government has no motivation to ask the question, how can we be sure that the efforts of those 3,500 spin doctors represents value for money – not just in terms of the quality of their work, which seems to be the main concern of the Prime Minister, but in terms of whether what they do is needed in the first place? Can we rely on the media to expose any waste and inefficiency? Perhaps, but remember that less information means having to work harder for stories.

If I was a diligent hack, I would invoke the Freedom of Information Act to assist an in-depth analysis of one government department – perhaps the Ministry of Health, which according to The Times spends around $90 million a year on communications. I would ask how many staff they deploy in the area, and seek a comprehensive list of deliverables for which these people are responsible – press releases, pamphlets, reports, advertising campaigns, social media and so forth – along with the resources dedicated to producing them. I would then compare their output with that of other ministries, and I would then look for comparable data in other countries – say Germany, France and the US.

And what could we hard-pressed taxpayers do? Well we could start by pestering our local elected representatives whenever we see or receive a communication that is plainly irrelevant, inappropriate or of dubious purpose – the “Go Home” posters on vans targeted at illegal immigrants clearly ticks two of those boxes in my book.

We could also get more media savvy, and ask ourselves where the stories we read in the print media and the internet are coming from, what motivates those that generate them and why they are appearing at a particular time. We should be sceptical, not accept information at face value and not afraid to complain if we suspect that the wool is being pulled over our eyes. Even if we don’t have the time to write to our MPs or local councillors, we can take advantage of the politicians’ obsession with the social media by posting our opinions online.

Or we could simply close our eyes and sleepwalk our way through a life increasingly plagued by misinformation, disinformation and too much information.

Our choice, I guess.

From → Media, Politics, Social, UK

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