Should ministers have “political spokespeople”?

I can’t remember who raised this as an idea – either in a Twitter exchange or at a social gathering somewhere, but it was one that got me thinking.

I’ve had a number of exchanges with people of various party political persuasions and none about the fate of Liam Fox – the now ex-Defence Secretary and the current investigations into the conduct of Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin – focussing my comments on the issue of sound public administration rather than on the party political noise. The previous administration had form when it came to poor information security whether it was the HMRC loss of records, the NHS losing records or the MoD losing laptops.

It was these exchanges alongside my own experiences and observations of party political creatures in the Whitehall jungle that have got me pondering again.

On the issue of special advisers (SpAds), Matthew D’Ancona wrote an interesting article about reforming the role of SpAds. I’ve worked with one or two before and have watched more from a safe distance. One or two may or may not follow Puffles on Twitter. It’s from these people more often than not that you get the TV news people saying something along the lines of:

A senior source at the Department for Really Naughty Secrets told me something really interesting!

Most of the time what they’ve been told isn’t of that big a deal to anyone except the most dedicated of Whitehall watchers.

Given that ministers cannot be everywhere at the same time, and given that civil service press officers have to be extremely careful about getting into party-political spats, is there a role for departments to have party political spokesmen/women embedded in departments whose job is purely to deal with the party political queries that come into those departments?

I’ve also pondered about the link between political party operations and ministers of the party in government – what are the links like between the policy-making operations within political parties and the ministers that happen to be in the posts where they are effectively the head of policy for both party and government? I can’t help but feel that the link between the policy making forums in the political party/ies in power and policy making activities within government departments should be both strengthened and made more transparent at the same time. The only time I stumbled across party political policy types during my time in the civil service was on the occasions I met with ministers and/or their special advisers, which varied significantly depending on the policy area that I worked in.

All of these things need to be considered within the context of the Public Administration Select Committee’s report Smaller Government: What should ministers do? By this I’m particularly focussing on reducing the number of unattributed briefings which in a social media world strikes as appearing too secretive. What do these people have to hide? Or is it simply party political types stirring the waters for the benefit of their factional master as in the days of Blair and Brown? While such gossip can be the oil that lubricates the party political machines in the Whitehall jungle, it’s just noise to those outside…noise that distracts the general public from scrutinising what are actually very important issues given the economic circumstances many of us – myself included – find ourselves in.

For those interested in the recommendations of the above-mentioned select committee’s inquiry, see here – and keep an eye out on if and when the number of ministers across governments now and in the future falls – as recommended by this committee. (I.e. accounting for increased devolution, to devolved administrations and local authorities, more contracting out and a reduction in the overall functions of government).

Some of you may also be interested in Making Better Policy by the Institute for Government – which has a number of very interesting proposals about transparency of the policy-making process.


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