Ministers and the public service: right in The Thick Of It

By Rebecca Douglas

July 28, 2014

Many a public servant would have caught a rerun or two of the early ’80s BBC sitcom Yes, Minister and had a chuckle at the hapless Minister Hacker being pushed around by Nigel Hawthorne’s brilliantly sly civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, hell-bent on maintaining the bureaucratic status quo.

The Thick of It, first aired on the BBC in 2005, is the warier, swearier version for the new millennium, with party spin-doctors ensuring no issue is untouched by their media meddling. The show focuses on the minister for the deliberately vague Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship and the various public relations bungles that happen on a (seemingly) daily basis.

The media’s role in these shows is as an ever-present source of potential conflict — a threat to reputations, the reason for rather than the reporter of government policies and the battleground to outflank the political opposition.

My experience in the public service has been largely positive, but not without its own battles. I’ve held job titles including industrial adviser, project officer, senior advice and conciliation officer and ministerial liaison officer. From the latter, I can attest that in real life the public service exerts far less influence over ministers than Sir Humphrey. There is, however, a no-less-vexed relationship with the press compared with the two shows.

As I have been, simultaneously, a public servant, member of the public and someone in “the media”, my feelings about this relationship are mixed. On the one hand it’s undeniably healthy for the media to scrutinise governments to keep them accountable. On the other, this scrutiny can motivate governments to use the media cynically or bury good policies and ideas out of fear of media backlash.

I have witnessed the relationship being a healthy one, with in-house media teams scouting for “good news stories”, like the case I offered up where I negotiated $4000 in compensation for a client. Reporting about this seems good for society, the media and the government. Hey, it didn’t hurt my resume either. Everybody wins.

There are times, however, when government responses to the press descend into almost Yes, Minister-esque farce.

In one department I was sent on media training, where we were taught how to stay “on message” during a radio interview and keep parroting three key points without actually answering the question. Essentially, we were taught to be politicians.

Another department I worked in was where plain English went to die. We seemed so focused on political correctness and calling disadvantaged groups the currently accepted acronym, we barely had any time to, well, actually help them. On one occasion I was excited to be creating a newsletter for a disadvantaged community. That is, until my manager got a hold of it and edited it to gov-speak anything useful out of existence. Such was the fear of offering any firm undertaking in any form of communication lest the media use it against us.

When the department actually was lampooned on talkback radio or a ministerial request came down from a dissatisfied customer, the response was often crafted in a deliberately vague, non-committal fashion. Then we would scramble to accommodate the customer’s every whim, reasonable or not. Sadly, it was a case of the squeakiest wheels getting the grease, launching themselves ahead of members of the public who waited patiently for service.

Wouldn’t it be nice to respond with less fear and more honesty? To directly help people rather than nitpicking over language? To defend the public servants doing the best job they can? I can dream.

Until then, it’s simply a case of Yes, Minister.

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