How political is Government Communications?

The UK Government’s Communications Service (GCS) published its 2015/16 communications plan  last week. At 55 pages it takes a bit of time to read through it, but if you have an interest in public sector communications you’ll find it worth your while.

The plan outlines the four key themes which will underpin Government communications for the next year – helping working people, spreading hope and opportunity, bringing the country together and Britain in the world.

The plan suggests four roles for communications – bringing about behaviour change, helping improve the effectiveness of Government services, enhancing the UK’s international reputation and explaining Government policies.

Interestingly, the plan places a great emphasis on the use of social media platforms and also underlines the importance of effective internal communications.

It is probably fair comment to say that most of the work of the GCS is not politically contentious. Most of us would agree that publicity work aimed at increasing benefit uptake, recruiting organ donors or helping crime prevention is clearly in the public interest.

However, there is no doubt that some of the work detailed in the plan is clearly political. For example, the phrase “one United Kingdom” appears several times in the document, which given the growth in support for the SNP in Scotland and the increasingly widening North / South divide in England, looks a little bit like wishful thinking.

The political angle is neither surprising nor new.  Alex Aiken, the current Executive Director of Government Communications, previously worked for both the Conservative Party and the hard-line Tory Westminster City Council.  And let’s not forget Alastair Campbell, who never hid the fact that his first allegiance was to the Labour Party and in particular to Tony Blair.

Gone are the days when a civil service PR such as Sir Bernard Ingham could happily, and very successfully, work for Tony Benn and then Margaret Thatcher.

While it is probably fair to say that Alex Aiken is a somewhat controversial figure, he does at least deserve some credit for co-ordinating the work of the various Whitehall departments and agencies, and for giving communications a high profile in Government circles.

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