Purdah, in the dark

When I worked in government departments purdah always came as something of a relief.  Purdah is the period before an election when new government business or announcements about new business are put on hold so as not to sully the fairness and purity of the democratic process.  It means that for almost a month government communications departments can come off the announcement-a-day, got-to-look-busy treadmill and catch up on refreshing the website, doing something about planning for later in the year and generally doing those things that never rise far enough up the To Do list to actually get done.

On the outside,  purdah is a curse.  There are no hard and fast rules as to what can and can’t be done or what forms of communication are OK and what has to stop,  The range of possible activity is so vast that no rule book could  cover everything.  Instead there is general guidance, guidance for civil servants, and dire warnings about what happens if you get it wrong.  Because no-one understands the rules, everyone takes the most cautious possible approach to applying the guidance.  Pretty much all activity stops.

I’m currently doing some work for an NDPB  (non-departmental public body, close relative of the ALB – arms-length body,  descendants of the great mother goddess Quango .)  My client has just informed me that everything I’m doing MUST stop next week – which is the best guess as to when the election is going to be called –  even though the calling of the election isn’t the  start of purdah.  My stuff can in no way be considered to be public communication, but so great is the fear of getting it wrong that even  useful development activity is stopped until hostilities are over (I sympathise with their point of view, by the way, even though I disagree that the guidance fits this particular case.)

At the moment no-one knows when the election is going to be, and the shadow of purdah has been limiting what new work is commissioned since the turn of the year.  At one point March 25 was considered a possible election date, so purdah would have kicked in at some point in February (and presumably started up again three weeks before the local elections in May).  The general election might still be pushed back to June 3, which means  full-steam ahead until May, and I will have wasted a couple of hours of  Good Friday finishing off stuff which could have waited until next week.

I appreciate that allowing freelancers to enjoy their bank holidays may not be the most important reason to back fixed-term parliaments, but a bit of clarity would help  everyone and would at least mean that  business can be planned around a timetable that has some relation to reality.

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