Will the Twitter-styled #racistvan campaign become a textbook case study for civil service communications officers on how not to do a comms campaign?
[Updated 31 July 2013 – The Government now faces a judicial review on this campaign]
The Guardian reports that the Government is already considering expanding the controversial campaign nationwide. I made my views clear in my earlier blogpost on evidence-based communications -> see here. What I find depressing is how the Prime Minister’s spokesman has been quoted as saying:
“This pilot that is currently running is about targeting [illegal immigrants] and it is working.”
The problem as I highlighted in my earlier blogpost, and as Zoe Williams did in The Guardian did, (apologies for lots of Guardian links on this!) is that we have no idea on what the criteria for measuring success are for this campaign. We also have no idea on what baselines the Home Office is using. If the Coalition is serious about open policy and evidence-based policy making, the least it should be doing is proactively publishing this information so that it can be scrutinised. Shouting loudly that something is working simply is not good enough.
It’s split the Coalition too
I wrote to my local MP Julian Huppert with my concerns – as I’m sure did a number of other constituents in Cambridge. Dr Huppert has since written to the Lib Dem minister in the Home Office about this campaign. Furthermore, the Business Secretary Vince Cable has publicly come out against the campaign. The reason why the latter is important is because it undermines the convention of collective responsibility of government. It also further exposes the policy gap between the Home Office and the Department for Business regarding immigration.
Should this have gotten passed civil servants?
I argued in my previous blogpost that it should not have. Dr Cable’s intervention re-enforces this point. It’s something that civil servants should have at least escalated to a level where ministers from both sides of the Coalition should have discussed it. If Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat Minister of State at the Home Office approved it, then there is an issue for the Liberal Democrats given the now very public policy split in the Coalition.
The civil service union the PCS – of which I used to be a workplace rep, has written to the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office complaining that the Home Office approved this campaign. I await with interest how the Permanent Secretary responds to the PCS – if at all.
The public’s response
Some have backed the principle of the vans saying they are supporting the enforcement of the law – also saying that they cannot see what’s racist about the message. Anecdotally the vast majority of the people pulling me up on this point were White males. The people most appalled by the campaign were not restricted to people from minority ethnic backgrounds but from across different backgrounds.
There were two responses that for me are public administration issues that, in particular the Government Communications Network need to look at with this campaign. The first were the various threats from people in and around the pilot areas to take direct action against the vans themselves. If the response from social media alone indicates people are prepared to put both themselves, the van drivers and potentially other road users at physical risk, is it really worth continuing with this campaign? (I’m not actually aware yet of anyone having actually followed through with this). The second is that other members of the public have decided to get in touch with the Home Office and string along the call handlers for as long as they can. Thus wasting the time of civil servants and the money of taxpayers – as a means of subversive protesting against the campaign. Thus the blame lies with those in the Home Office rather than the campaigners protesting against it. Did they not see something like this coming?
Again, my questions to the Home Office remain outstanding:
- 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?
I hope Julian and/or others will put at least some of these questions to senior Home Office officials the next time they appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee.