Evidence-based communications?


On another controversial piece of political communications

I was horrified when I saw the headline in the Evening Standard:

Go home or face arrest: billboard crackdown on illegal immigration”

[Updated to add: A picture of the adverts can be seen here. I’m lost for words]

Perhaps they didn’t have enough money to pay for the next stage – a group of Team America World Police-style actors in full combat gear landing by helicopter doing forward roles and shouting at any non-White passer by:

“You there! Terrorist! Get outta da cuntree or you’ll bee under arrest!!!”

It’s not the first time I’ve given the Home Office a kicking over immigration – here’s another recent one. Again, this one goes to the heart of the lack of diversity in Whitehall, Westminster and in particular within ministerial ranks. Would a minister from a minority ethnic background who had grown up in the inner cities during the 1970s have put a communications proposal forward like that? Unlikely. Can Home Office ministers (see here) look every single civil servant from a BME background in the eye and say that there will be absolutely no backlash from the wider community against them because of the colour of their skin?

Would this have come from civil servants?

I struggle to see how this would have done given both of what I know of civil servants and also from the conversations about the importance of evidence bases in both policy and communications. On the day that the Evening Standard published its story, the Executive Director of Government Communications at Cabinet Office, Alex Aiken tweeted to Puffles the following:


This was from a conference of civil service communications and press office types, a group I keep in touch with because of the impact that social media is having on their work. Back in January 2012 I hosted a workshop on the impact of social media on Whitehall (see here), provocatively stating that the traditional press office was becoming obsolete as members of the public demanded to get through directly to policy advisers. The increased profile of ‘open policy-making’ within civil service circles has only confirmed this further for me. But there is a growing chasm between what is happening in civil service circles and what is happening in party politics.

Where’s the evidence that driving around in a van with a billboard actually has any impact?

Is it from the political campaigning school from the last millennium? Won’t someone think of the carbon emissions or about the traffic in congested parts of South London? As if the capital in this heatwave doesn’t have enough emissions to cope with…

Who is the target audience here?

The article says illegal migrants – in particular visa overstayers. The problem I have at the time of writing is that the Evening Standard is the only source that I have. I’ve not yet found anything on an official government website that states this is what ministers wants to do. The only thing I can do is to take the Evening Standard’s word for it – especially given that they are directly quoting a Home Office minister. (It’s very bad form for the mainstream press to deliberately make up quotations from ministers. Yes, they’ll spin quotations to suit a given agenda, but making stuff up is far less often seen as Whitehall press offices tend to be hot on such things). [Updated to add: The official announcement has since been made here]

By their very nature, people who are in the country in breach of their entry requirements are not the easiest group of people to track down and profile. If anything, they have every incentive to avoid contact with public authorities lest they get deported to a place where they have little prospect of an economic future. At the same time, there is a school of thought particularly left of centre-left politics that takes the viewpoint that there is no such thing as an illegal person – the planet belongs to all of us and national borders are artificial constructs. It exposes some of the inherent contradictions of globalisation and capitalism: To have increasingly efficient markets the theory states you need to remove barriers to the flow of wealth, capital, information and finally labour. As you’ll note, draconian intellectual property and copyright laws, plus tough immigration rules are barriers.

If your policy is flawed or if an institution is malfunctioning, don’t expect communications to cover things up

This reflects ongoing problems with the various agencies that have dealt with borders and immigration over the years. Just as with the consultation to get landlords to do immigration checks (a policy I describe as ‘despicable’ here – and you can submit your own comments in this consultation here), a single communications activity is likely to have negligible impact on the issue at hand – especially one so poorly resourced as this one.

The two big problems ministers need to acknowledge are:

  • Flaws within their wider political philosophy regarding globalisation and migration
  • A lack of consistency and agreement from central government regarding migration – the Department for Business and the Home Office have two separate and conflicting objectives regarding migration that they cannot reconcile.

Essentially one employer’s talented and business-critical individual from overseas is another tabloid reader’s brown bearded baddie who should be deported. Driving vans around town with provocative messages hardly encourages people to make calm rational and thought-through judgements. It’s not as if the only people that will be impacted by the slogans will be the targeted migrants. It’s not as if your average person on the street can differentiate between someone in the UK in breach of their entry documents versus someone who like myself who is of mixed heritage, was born, brought up here and has an accent & telephone manner that as people in the past have ignorantly commented does not match my face. Yeah, it happens.

I can’t help but feel that Mo Farah spoke for more than a few people when he won Olympic golds this time last year when some idiot asked him if he’d have preferred to have run for the country of his birth:

Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud

It seems strange now that the Olympics is long gone (despite the fight over what its legacy is) the media and political rhetoric against women, people with disabilities and people from minority ethnic backgrounds has been ramped up. Ditto anyone who happens to be out of work. The thing is, when it’s not you that is being targeted day in day out, it’s easier to ignore it. When it is you that is being targeted, it’s much harder to ignore.

Questions that the Home Office need to answer

  • Where did the idea for this communications activity originate from?
  • What evidence and research bases informed the decision to undertake this particular communications activity?
  • What were the alternative actions and why were they turned down?
  • What considerations/assessment was made of the possible negative consequences of this communications activity and why were they discounted/overridden?
  • How much money is being spent on this communications activity?
  • How is it being evaluated and how/when will that evaluation be published?
  • Who in the civil service signed off/approved this specific communications activity and under what grounds? (Was it, for example cleared by the Director of Communications at the Home Office, and if not why not?)
  • How is this communications activity consistent with other communications activities within the department
  • How is this communications activity consistent with wider and cross-government policies – in particular those from the Department of Business seeking to attract skilled people from overseas?
  • How is this communications activity consistent with policies coming out from the Government Communications Network?

Will this be raised at the Home Affairs Select Committee? My local MP Julian Huppert sits on that committee and described this communications activity as Nasty and likely to be ineffectual.” I will be interested to see whether the Committee picks this up and how both ministers and senior civil servants cope under cross-examination from both Julian and from Keith Vaz, the committee chair.

Food for thought.


4 thoughts on “Evidence-based communications?

  1. It seems this outrageous policy is being implemented only in London. If so, why? Is Westminster ONLY interested in governing London? Or do they think London is the only city where they had a remote chance of getting away with this deliberately intimidating tactic that will suit UKIP and the EDL just fine?

    The whole thing disgusts me. I want nothing to do with the UK. Look at it! Just look at it! It’s run by suits who are grotesquely ugly in their views and very nasty, unthinking wee people. The sooner this Union is ended, the better.

  2. Another question for the Home Office: Which advertising/design agency carried out the artwork for this billboard and which print firm produced it?

    Whomever they are, I can imagine they have other clients that would not want to be associated with an agency or printer who peddles nationalist propaganda.

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