Pop quiz: what do these stories have in common?
- There are rumours that removing regional development agencies might land Eric Pickles’ department with a £1bn+ bill
- Michael Gove takes several goes to announce cuts for BSF and then hails 16 rather than 700 free schools (most of which won’t open on time)
- Potential tax breaks for married couples are announced in order to muffle complaints about child benefit cuts
- A senior Minister is on TV defending cutting milk for primary schools as Downing Street announces that the cut won’t happen
- Jeremy Paxman gets to reprise one of his greatest hits by asking Theresa May repeatedly when she found out about the child benefit shemozzle
- Baroness Warsi announces that electoral fraud cost the Tories three seats at the last election but won’t say who, what, when or where
- Town hall meetings about the Big Society have to be cancelled after the first one degenerates into a slanging match
The answer is, of course, they are united by rushed policy-making, an airy attitude to making announcements without expecting to be questioned about the details, and spectacularly bad communications.
Ironically,the thing I like about this government ( the only one) is its sense of urgency and its refusal to accept that there are any sacred cows that can’t be slaughtered. I wish the last lot had been so bold. But change on this scale needs to be based on sound evidence and detailed policy work, else it has a tendency to blow up in your face; and if you can’t explain what you’re trying to do, you can’t build the support you need to get it done.
The comms thing really pains me: poor briefing, confused messages, over-promising what cannot be delivered, insensitivity to the needs of important stakeholders, confusion about key areas of policy. They need good communications support and the need will get more acute as policy starts to be implemented. Some optimists think that they are going to start realising this quite soon. Regular readers will know, however, that I am not by nature a glass half full kind of a girl. Government communication is firmly linked to spin and smears (Cameron said it again in his leader’s speech yesterday). The notions of PR, lobbying and campaigning are such an anathema to Ministers that they are effectively forbidding people to do it (even though an estimated 15% of new Tory MPs have a background in lobbying). CIPR are trying to raise the issue of the value of public sector comms, but I doubt that will be enough. They need comms help – how do we convince them?
Update: I’ve just re-read this. It worries me that it looks as though I think comms can or should be used as a cover for bad policy. It can’t and shouldn’t. My point is that if the government has a coherent strategy that is driving what’s being done, they have no chance of letting us know what it might be without a marked improvement in their comms. The fact that it looks increasingly as though no such coherence exists is worrying on many levels…