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The End Of UK Public Service Information Signalled

Phillis Report Signals End Of UK Public Service Information

By David Miller

The report of the Phillis committee sounds the death knell government information as a public service. Its main recommendation is the abolition of the Government Information and Communication Service and its replacement with a permanent secretary in charge of information and strengthened communications structures within departments. In particular this will ensure that the increasingly flimsy restraints on propriety will be undermined as information staff will be required to identify openly with the views of the minister in preference to issuing information which is not tendentious. Or, as the report puts it, each department's communicative activity 'must clearly contribute to the achievement of the department's overall policy aims and objectives'

The revolution started by Mandelson and Campbell with the appointment of Mountfield and the dismissal or resignation of almost all heads of information in 1997/98, has come full circle. The destruction of the GICS is the result - a task never managed by the Conservatives, although Michael Heseltine tried it as far back as 1979. One of the last remaining Directors of Information predating new Labour, the incumbent Director of the GICS has resigned as a result.

The report makes virtually no mention of the factors which underlie weakening of public service values in government information, not least of which is the increasing role for the private sector and PR and lobbying consultants. It notes that the GICS is 'not fit for purpose' since it does not include all government information officers and is marginalised both operationally and in practice. This is bizarre, since all of these problems have been caused by the move to marketise the information apparatus. The report actually recommends that the marketising process is extended saying 'it is vital to encourage exchange between public and private sectors' to encourage 'skill development' (p. 19) - otherwise known as techniques of manipulation.

Of course this neglect of the underlying problem is hardly surprising given the preponderance of private sector PR people on the committee including representatives from companies touting for or already contracted to carry out government PR work. The PR speak is visible from the first recommendation. 'Communication' should be 'redefined' to mean 'a continuous dialogue with all interested parties'. Dialogue and partnership are the preferred approaches of Trans National Corporations in their PR strategies to undermine their critics, to resist binding regulation and to further liberalise the global economy. Later the report refers to the NHS and Inland Revenue as 'well-known brands' a typical piece of corporate-speak for institutions that are actually in the public sector. The adoption of the language and practice of free market PR is a strong indication of the trajectory here. This is to continue the process, begun under Thatcher, of marketising the civil service and importing private sector techniques of image management and manipulation into government.

The report veers between the banal and the platitudinous. One example: 'more effective communication will lead to more effective government' (p12). The report has no coherent analysis of what has caused the growing gap in trust between government and governed. It reports that it has been told that this is caused by New Labour's communications strategy, the reaction of the media and the response of the civil service. This provides the opportunity for some mild criticism of government secrecy but entirely fails to understand the wide gulf between the political elite and the population, which is fostered by neo-liberal politics everywhere.

The one enlightening fact in the report is its estimate that there are 2,600 people working directly in communication directorates. This is more than twice the number that Whitehall has claimed for the past twenty years. This suggests both a phenomenal growth in government PR staff and highlights the problem that the marketisation of government information has proceeded with virtually no attention in public debate. The Phillis report will only ensure that such processes continue and government information will become even less reliable.

An Independent Review of Government Communications, Chairman Bob Phillis, Presented to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, January, 2004


© Copyright 2004 David Miller.

David Miller is the editor of "Tell Me Lies: Propaganda & Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq" Pluto Press.

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