As press secretary to the Leader of the House of Commons, I have always been keen on supporting government communicators. In turn I have found that government communicators are always keen to learn more about Westminster and how their work shapes and affects ministerial outcomes in parliament.
It’s clear to me that every discipline within communications helps shape ministers’ relationship with parliament. This is fundamental to the work we do as officials. As the Civil Service Code puts it: “Civil Servants are accountable to Ministers, who are in turn accountable to Parliament.”
Translating this principle into the practical realities of our day jobs is not always straightforward because parliament, especially in a political context, can mean many things to different people. Nevertheless, it’s important that government communicators are clear-eyed about how their work impacts and influences their department’s relationship with parliament.
For example, when an announcement is briefed out to the press without consideration of how parliament will be told about it, the Speaker will not hesitate to reflect MPs’ anger. If stakeholders have not been properly engaged with, the evidence they give to select committees can be much more critical. Likewise, if a minister does a visit without telling the relevant MP they are travelling to their constituency, they can find themselves facing a critical point of order.
Ministerial reputations in the House rest on the cumulative effect of these sorts of incidents. If a minister starts being perceived as not treating parliament well, it can make a real difference when they find themselves facing scrutiny on a particularly uncomfortable issue.
Many of these pitfalls are avoidable and it’s just as important to focus on the good feelings that proper treatment of parliament can generate. The Commons is a place of opportunity for the government: ministers can use the despatch box as a platform to frame their policies in the right way and make their case for policy changes, including new laws.
Reputations are there to be won as well as lost. This matters to bill teams, private offices and parliamentary teams, not to mention the special advisers and the whips; but it should also matter to GCS, too.
In UK Parliament Week I hope all members of GCS take a moment to think about how their work supports ministers’ relationship with their fellow parliamentarians. Together, our collective work as a profession has an enormous impact on how ministers fare in parliament.
Resources are available on Civil Service Learning which will help provide more context to the constitutional background and the GCS professional standards team are hard at work developing more tailored products for communicators.
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