In a guest paper for the Institute for Government, Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s former Downing Street director of communications, calls for an overhaul of government communications and media handling to ensure a “failing” system does not repeat mistakes made at the start of the pandemic.
Cain, who worked in No.10 from 2019 to 2020, argues that unclear lines of responsibility, endemic leaking and inconsistent policy development contributed to the mixed messages that undermined the government’s Covid response. He calls for a major restructuring of government communications and a shift away from a “predominantly analogue system in a digital age” to one that “drives public confidence in the government’s direction and actions”.
Cain’s proposed reforms include:
- strengthening the GCS by bringing it under one umbrella organisation with more senior leadership
- restoring civil servants as the lead press/official spokesperson in their departments to reduce the reliance on special advisers
- reducing the numbers of comms officers across Whitehall from 8,000 to fewer than 2,000 (eventually capping at 30–40 per department) but with increased remunerations and training
- increasing the focus on digital and broadcast communication, putting it on par with print
- renewing the government’s commitment to hold regularly televised press briefings, fronted by the prime minister or his press secretary, to increase accountability.
He argues there is much the government can be proud of in its handling of the pandemic – such as the success of the ‘Stay Home’ campaign. But in his critique of its communications failures, Cain highlights a structure that has failed to evolve – leaving communications officials lacking the seniority of their policy counterparts, and a system that was fundamentally unprepared for a crisis the scale of Covid.
The report is published alongside the IfG response to Cain’s recommendations – Alex Thomas, IfG programme director, welcomes Cain’s ideas to strengthen the GCS but argues that better messaging is no substitute for coherent policy nor a remedy for misleading statements from government.