So public affairs is OK, just not in the public sector?

6 Aug

The populist move by Communities and Local Government secretary Eric Pickles to end 'lobbying on the rates' is good politics (following on from the bonfire of the quangos).

"Taxpayer-funded lobbying and propaganda on the rates weakens our democracy" are words ascribed to Pickles in his department's press release (that wouldn't be propaganda though; surely that's public relations).

Lobbying always sounds bad, especially when one publicly-funded body is lobbying another part of government in support of its own interests. Who can argue against a reduction in taxpayer-funded lobbying and propaganda?

The language is archaic though. Lobbying implies something covert and undemocratic; propaganda always suggests evil intent, though there can be 'white propaganda'; public relations is at least capable of being open and accountable. The rates – for anyone reading this younger than me – was a discredited system of local government taxation that was replaced by the current Council Tax (after the controversial interlude of the so-called Poll Tax).

But while I've no argument with the politics of this move, here's an objection at a more philosophical level.

If you have one monolithic government (let's view this as a communist model for argument's sake), then clearly it's nonsense to have one branch lobbying another. It wouldn't happen in China, would it?

But if your philosophy is in favour of small government and the redistribution of powers to localities and communities (surely the thinking behind the Big Society), then you are in favour of diversity of provision and plurality of expression. This means there will be more organisations competing for funding and attention: community groups, activists, not-for-profit organisations and local government all using public relations techniques (up to and including lobbying and propaganda) to support their causes and to defend their licences to operate.

It sounds popular to attack government waste including the spending on PR – but the way I see it the Big Society and the devolution of powers to communities will result in more PR, not less.

2 Responses to “So public affairs is OK, just not in the public sector?”

  1. Penny 06/08/2010 at 6:12 pm #

    I completely agree – in a world with multiple forms of service provision, efficient communication is going to be vital to help local people make sense of the services they are being offered and help providers compete for funds. I did like the irony, though, of Mr Pickles protecting local democracy by imposing a ban on local authorities doing things he disapproves of…

  2. Jo Fawkes 20/08/2010 at 5:07 pm #

    I worked in what would now be called council propaganda in the 80s – under the old Rates Act. I was involved in campaigning for council policies – which included radical ideas like equal pay; translation of council docs into many languages; equal opps employment procedures; disabled access to council buildings – I could go on. Most of these are now UK laws and standard practice, but they were condemned by the Thatcher government and the power of councils to campaign for such ideas was outlawed in the late 80s. Since then it has not been legal to promote policies only to explain them under tight communication restrictions. Hard to see how they can be tightened – I suggest the Pickles bid is just empty PR (also reflects his role in the anti-GLC campaign at the time). Perhaps it would be better to distinguish between empty and substantial PR rather than use terms like propaganda. In general I think it goes: I do public relations, you do propaganda.

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