Why this is an issue – on the back of some … ‘controversial’ tweets from @DWPPressOffice
Until the age of about 20, I had no idea the civil service existed. While I followed politics more closely than most people, I never really gave things much thought in terms of what happened when administrations changed. In the grand scheme of things, I assume that the same is true for many people.
Politicisation of civil servants – a very brief history
The politicisation of the civil service has been an issue for the past few decades – whether one thinks about the role of Bernard Ingham as Thatcher’s press secretary to that of Alistair Campbell and his actions during Tony Blair’s years. The purpose of this blog is not to look in detail about the generic issue over history, but to zoom in on a number of issues raised about the relationship between civil servants, ministers and political appointees in the world of social media.
I was still in the civil service when John Denham, former Communities and Local Government Secretary stung his former department, extracting a formal public apology from the then Acting Permanent Secretary Irene Lucas, due to overtly-political press releases. Denham had the advantage of having worked with members of that press office – and with Irene Lucas (who left the civil service shortly after Bob Kerslake’s appointment as Permanent Secretary). Although the apology came from Ms Lucas, his criticism was aimed at ministers. If civil servants weren’t behaving in that manner under him (Denham), why would they behave in such a manner now? – he asked.
The thing is, most people are not aware of the nuances between a departmental press release coming from civil servants, and a party-political press release coming from politicians. To most people, the party that’s in government morphs into one and the same. Hence my desire to do something about helping educate people on how large public institutions in this country function. (Of which this blog forms a part).
The Civil Service Code
Civil servants are under a series of restrictions on what political things they can and cannot do. I used to be in a politically-restricted post – Fast Stream postings are politically restricted – see also the Civil Service Management Code para 4.4.9. With good reason. If you were a minister, would you want your press officers and senior policy advisers in the civil service actively campaigning for the opposition at the same time? Could you trust them? Hence all of the issues around the NHS risk register. When developing policy, ministers will want to make informed decisions – including all of the risks associated with them. They’ll want to know what the impact of the risk materialising is likely to be, the likelihood of the risk materialising, the steps being taken to reduce both, and the ‘residual risk’ – impact and likelihood after those steps have been taken. Now you can see why many opponents of the NHS Bill want the risk register associated with it to be released – and why ministers & civil servants are fighting tooth and nail to keep it under wraps. Documents such as this being leaked can be political dynamite for both ministers and their policies.
So what makes a departmental press release party political? My take is that it’s anything that involves going after political opponents. It’s the minister’s prerogative to do the political stuff in the Commons/Lords and in outside speeches. It’s not the prerogative of civil servants to help them do it. Civil servants in general should not be doing detailed research into the policies of opposition parties. I recall in the run-up to one of Alistair Darling’s budgets that opposition politicians complained that the Government was directing civil servants to do number-crunching on the opposition’s policies – a major no-no. (I’ve not been able to find a link to this though). It’s one thing to do the number-crunching to support the Government’s policies, it’s another thing to do number-crunching to undermine the opposition’s. That’s the role for party machines, not for civil servants. Otherwise you run the risk of co-opting a civil service machine of thousands of policy-makers becoming an arm of the incumbent party in government.
In terms of who upholds the Civil Service Code (& the more detailed Civil Service Management Code), that’s the job of the Civil Service Commissioners – who have guidance here. If you’re a civil servant with concerns, follow that guidance. If as a citizen you are concerned with a specific example, you need to contact your MP and ask them to write to the Permanent Secretary of the department concerned.
DWP in hot water.
I’ve mentioned in a previous post of the virtual car-crash nature of the Government’s welfare reform policies as far as social media is concerned. Essentially what campaigners have realised is that firms with a large public-facing element (especially retail firms) are far less resilient to protests than ministers and their advisers first thought. A combination of social media firestorms alongside the mainstream media coverage of the firestorms has had a number of firms retreating or ‘clarifying’ what their relationships should be with the DWP and Job Centre Plus on the various Work Programme schemes.
The thing is, social media users are catching them out left, right and centre. One example includes the alleged editing of documents which some accuse the DWP of trying to rewrite history – this one put together by @LatentExistence. This for me is a classic case of the knowledge of the network and the hive being far greater than that of the hierarchical organisation – observations I first stumbled across in a coherent manner by Paul Mason. Again, I refer back to the slides at the end of my post about UKGovCamp. Any attempts to try and ‘manipulate’ the historical record is likely to get into hot water – especially on something as controversial as this policy. Press offices and policy teams simply do not have the knowledge, resources or, to put it harshly the competency try and cover stuff up like this in social media world. They are hard-pushed enough as it is trying to ensure that the policy is sound, rather than taking on the fun and games of the dark arts of spin.
Another example includes the questionable tweets being put out by DWP’s Press Office – which has been Storified here by @EvidenceMatters. As you can see, through Puffles I went after DWP over this. It is not the business of the DWP to be going after their opponents. That’s the business of the Conservative Party and/or the Liberal Democrats and their party political functions. It’s the responsibility of the Met Police to deal with protests if there is anything that could be affecting people’s ability to get to the shops or not. It’s not for the DWP to get involved. It’s way outside of their department’s remit and competency. The department of state closes to having competency is the Home Office – as Puffles tweeted. Even then, there is a longstanding convention of the police having operational independence – the Home Secretary does not get involved in operational matters – for which protests against shops in Oxford Street (or anywhere else) would fall under.
Basically DWP have screwed up here. In the grand scheme of things I tend to view stuff like this as screw-ups rather than conspiracies. The reason being that most conspiracy theories make one key error in their assumptions: They assume the competency of too many people.
Departments are still learning what is and what isn’t acceptable in social media. Many – including my last department are taking a very cautious line – understandably so. DWP has a Twitter policy. It’s one thing quoting a minister calling something “misguided” in a tweet. It’s quite another for a civil service press office to do so in their own words. This is because it’s going beyond the remit of being purely defensive of government policy and going on the offensive against political opponents. Again, that’s the role of party political press offices.
All of this reminds everyone of the importance of Cabinet Office’s drafting of new social media guidance. To get an idea of why it is important that Cabinet Office and the wider civil service gets this right, have a read in full of “We the web kids” – which gives an idea of how the first generation that has grown up with the internet. It speaks volumes as to why generations more used to pre-internet ways of working are struggling to cope with the demands emerging from social media world.