DFEE's open and shut case

May 1, 1998

THES reporters assess the impact of Labour's first year of government on higher and further education and unravel how they have sold their policies to the country

LABOUR'S slick presentational style has been sorely tested since the party came to power, and education has offered some of the biggest challenges.

The new government hit the ground running and the Department for Education and Employment communications machinery struggled to keep up. One former government spokesman described the effect of a change of government as akin to a computer crashing with the lines of communication between ministers and press officers temporarily severed.

Press officers also faced the difficulty of explaining the plans for fees, grants and income-contingent loans in the absence of any detailed policy on these proposals. Opinions differ on the government's handling of these issues.

Former DFEE insiders are split between those who believe the government let the policy message run too far ahead of the actual policy and those who say the timing was absolutely right. The former argue that the speed created a communications vacuum with the department simply unable to answer obvious questions on fees and loans. The latter say it would have been far more difficult to manage the media in the long run had Mr Blunkett not immediately rejected the Dearing report's funding recommendations in July.

The result was that the department remained defensive rather than proactive throughout last year. This tended to undermine promise of open government. But as one former government press officer said: "Openness is one of these things governments may promise but can never really deliver. You cannot have leaky departments."

While the media has fed the obsessive public interest in the roles of high-profile spin doctors Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan, little has been said about others carrying out similar roles behind the scenes.

In the DFEE Conor Ryan, special adviser to David Blunkett, comes closest to spin doctor. His role is to offer advice on the thinking behind the policies and how they might "play" in the press. He would have been a key player in the decision to announce fees last July.

The department is now taking stock. A new Strategy and Communications Directorate is being set up under Peter Wanless, former head of policy at the Treasury's private finance taskforce. Mr Wanless will control overall departmental development and direction.

Another recent appointee, Julia Simpson, head of quality and communications for Camden Borough Council, takes over as press office head and spokeswoman for Mr Blunkett in June. Ms Simpson will work closely with Mr Ryan, who remains Mr Blunkett's adviser and the political spin doctor.

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