Presentational Skills

The Need to Campaign

It is never enough, nowadays, merely to announce a new policy or introduce new laws and regulations and then expect instant obedience. We have to get the public on our side, or else even the cleverest of policies will fail.

Katie Perrier said this after the disastrous announcement of changes to social care policy during the Conservative 2017 election campaign:

'... it was the selling of it that was the problem. I sat in too many meetings in Downing Street talking about the frontline problems of social care and the NHS not to have huge respect for the effort to tackle this head on without ducking the costs. But policies like this need weeks of warming up journalists, charities and industry leaders - not whacked out in a manifesto and briefed the night before.'

Indeed, many parts of Whitehall have come to recognise that they are not so much involved in change programs but are rather engaged in what amount to a permanent campaigns. Trollope's Phineas Finn had it about right when he said that "Many who before regarded legislation as [wildly fanciful] will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as ... possible, then ... probable; and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made."

The Need for Good Design

We must also remember that very few people read guidance material, however well written. New regulations therefore need to be easy to understand, and clearly communicated via the media, if they are to be generally accepted and easily enforced. The main purpose of guidance material should be to answer questions about the application of the new rules to non-standard situations.

We must therefore design policies that are easily communicated. Furthermore, presentation needs to be considered right at the beginning of the policy process, not near the end, for policies that are hard to understand, and hard to defend, are generally flawed. The time to think about this is before you choose your policy option, not right at the end of the process. White Papers, consultation documents etc. should make it crystal clear how each proposal will make life better for ordinary members of the public, for business or for other sectors.

See also my advice on policy making and effective communication.

Supporting Ministers

Let’s now fast forward beyond the policy design stage to the point at which Ministers’ decisions need to be announced, and so become the object of critical scrutiny by other politicians and the media. We now have a duty to be less analytical and instead help Ministers present their policies and decisions in the best possible light. In order to carry out this task, we must put aside any doubts (and sometimes also put aside inconvenient facts) and look at the issue through Ministers’ eyes in order to help them express their beliefs and defend their policies as effectively as possible.

Whenever you are thinking about the presentational aspects of a policy, there are two or three things to bear in mind.

Do bear in mind that there are strict limits to how far we can go without compromising our political impartiality. On the one hand, it is perfectly proper for us to prepare drafts for Ministers (including draft Parliamentary Answers) which praise the Government’s policies, and it is perfectly proper for our drafts to omit facts and arguments which might cast doubt on the appropriateness of those policies. In doing this, we are not being unprofessional. Rather, like the barrister whose principal duty is to the court and who does not necessarily believe in the client’s case, we are simply providing the best possible professional service to our clients, without going so far as to mislead either the Minister or Parliament.

On the other hand, we may not explicitly or implicitly criticise members of, nor the policies of, the Opposition, nor may we criticise the actions or performance of the current Opposition whilst they were in Government. Also, anything in a draft that purports to be a fact must be verifiable. Nor may we serve up unverifiable generalisations. If you feel that Ministers would want to make a statement which cannot be verified then you should suggest that they say something like: ‘I believe it is clear that ...’ or something of the sort, so attributing the statement to the Minister, rather than implying that it cannot be questioned.

Incidentally, Ministers are particularly sensitive about publications put out by departments. Even the most obscure of documents can contain embarrassing ‘expert’s’ comments or ambiguous facts – often stuck in an obscure annex. Commentators will then use the document to attack a Minister – even though he or she may never have seen it. Of course such documents must still be published, but Ministers are entitled to be warned about possible problems, and given an opportunity to prepare their comments. All documents should therefore be read in detail by someone other than their author to check for problems.

And we must be particularly careful when supporting our Minister in ‘the box’ in the House of Commons, or sitting in a Committee room anywhere in Parliament. In particular, it is a dead give away if we put our head in our hands when our Minister is asked the one question that we have particularly dreaded.


Martin Stanley