Communication costs

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Editors’ blog: There was a fair amount said during the election campaign about government’s lack of communication with the public.

If voters and candidates are suggesting that the government (by which I presume we mean all the departments of government) should be more transparent - that it should give information freely, that it should be open - then I’m all for it.

Apart from the fact that it would beef up our news coverage, it is good for democracy and society. Information is essential for good decision-making.

However, I wonder whether the people who bang on about the need for better communication would agree with the suggestion that the government should spend more taxpayers’ money on public relations and press officers.

One doesn’t come without the other as far as I can see.

And I think it’s money well spent. But perhaps I would say that.

Of course, many readers might think communicating with the public and talking to the press are two entirely different things.

But are they?

How does the government communicate with the public?

Allan Bell isn’t going to phone everyone individually to keep them abreast of the latest machinations of government.

It has to be done through mass communication. And mass communication means newspapers, the wireless and the internet in the Isle of Man.

If it’s really big news it might make it on to Granada Reports or BBC North West Tonight (if it’s not too boring to the 98 per cent of the programmes’ audience who don’t happen to live in the Isle of Man).

At the moment, government PR varies department to department.

Some people are employed, in part, as press officers. But I don’t think press officering is a full-time job for any of them.

A good press officer doesn’t necessarily know everything. But he or she does know how to find out quite quickly. They know the right people in an organisation and who’s responsible for what.

Anyone in a press officer role facilitates communication with the outside world. They can be invaluable.

They often tee-up someone who knows what he/she is talking about to answer our questions. Sometimes they produce a statement. It depends on the nature of the inquiry.

And a response is always better than “was not available for comment”.

From memory, only the Department of Tourism had any sort of press officer (or equivalent) back in the early 90s when I was a junior reporter.

Then we often went straight to the chief executive. It really begged the question of whether it was always a good use of a £92,000 boss’s time to find out things for us. They were often, understandably, unavailable.

Those candidates and voters who moaned about lack of communication have to ask themselves what can be done about it.

Sure, the culture of many civil servants and some politicians should change.

But the day-to-day communication with the media (and the public) needs human beings on the ground.

Meanwhile, if Freedom of Information is going to happen and be meaningful, people will have to be employed to help to find out information.

It’s all very well having things public but if it’s too hard to find, what’s the point?

Freedom of Information requests will have to be dealt with by someone in government.

However, how on earth that would cost £1m every year (as suggested last week in the House of Keys) is mind-boggling.

Let’s say 10 people are employed to do the job. Are we really suggesting they’d all be on £100,000 - more than most departmental chief executives?

The sums just don’t add up.

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