23 January 2004
Any moves to amend the current selection process for government communications officers and other civil servants would be a step backwards, the FDA union warned this week.
The union, which represents senior civil servants, said the existing selection processes were extremely important in maintaining the political impartiality and integrity of the civil service.
Responding to the report from the Independent Review of Government Communications group, which called for radical reform of the Whitehall communications operation, an FDA spokesman said: 'Any moves to amend the process would cause long-term damage to the values of the service. We also strongly agree that ministers should not be involved in the selection process for communications professionals – or for other civil servants.'
The report, which was published on January 19, was heavily critical of the 'culture of secrecy' and the 'era of spin' in Whitehall.
Chaired by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, the inquiry's report called on the government to disband the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS), which it said had 'structural and systems weaknesses that diminished the work of many able staff within GICS. These weaknesses made GICS no longer fit for purpose'.
The FDA said it was important for government and for the health of democracy that trust in the system be restored.
The spokesman added: 'As the report states, this is best done by reinforcing the political neutrality of the civil service and through open government, and we welcome the proposal to define more clearly the relationships between civil servants and special advisers.'
Cabinet Office minister Douglas Alexander said the government was in the process of appointing a new permanent secretary to oversee the overhaul of communications. The new appointee would consider whether all existing rules and guidance were 'fit for purpose' and would also ensure the improved training and development of the 2,600 communications specialists in Whitehall.
However, a senior civil servant told Public Finance that the move had not been welcomed across Whitehall. He said: 'The idea of yet another senior manager being brought in to set out more targets has not gone down well here. There is the fear that the communications people have been made a scapegoat for this government's obsession with spin.'
The report accepted the role of special advisers but said there was a lack of clarity in their relationship with civil servants.
It recommended that new propriety guidelines and induction training should be developed by the new permanent secretary for government communications, which would cover all those involved in communication, including special advisers.
The Phillis committee also called on the government to use the Freedom of Information Act as an antidote to partisan reporting.
The report said: 'We found a culture of secrecy and partial disclosure of information which is at the root of many of the problems we have examined.
'We recommend that, when implementing the main provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the overriding presumption should be to disclose.'
DSA faces staff ballot on two-day stoppage
The Driving Standards Agency says it is continuing to seek ways to achieve an amicable resolution after staff agreed to a ballot on a two-day strike over pay.
The Public and Commercial Services union said staff at the DSA, which is part of the Department for Transport, have still not received a pay offer for last year and are angry about the stalling of equal pay measures across the department.
A source at the agency told Public Finance that although the DSA, which operates a successful trading fund, had made profits of more than £3m above target, civil servants had not been given a pay offer.
They will be balloted on January 22 about a two-day stoppage. If it goes ahead, it would be the agency's first strike in eight years.
PCS regional officer Dave Ratchford said a comparison of pay scales between the DSA and the DoT had revealed wide variations in pay. In some cases, civil servants in similar jobs at the DSA were earning £4,000-£7,000 less than DoT colleagues. 'We are not prepared to let the issue go and we are still waiting to hear what the DSA management are prepared to do about it,' he told PF.
The DSA said pay discussions were ongoing.