The Problem with Purdah


There is no such thing as ‘purdah’. That is what the Cabinet Office press office would tell you if you asked. It is the ‘pre-election period’ and rather unusually this time (see Stefan’s post for why it is unusual) there is some comprehensive guidance available. I happen to think it is pretty useless but it is comprehensive.

The entire mysterious process of ‘purdah’ (and despite this guidance it does remain mysterious) does the public a huge disservice. It is amongst the things most frustrating about the Civil Service (and as you well know it is not like there aren’t any other contenders!).

Though lets be clear — I totally agree with the idea that the Civil Service should be seen as non-partisan and independent. You know what you are getting into when you join and the Civil Service code (another mysterious item referred too much more often than sighted) makes that clear. The problem with ‘purdah’ is that it actually undermines that non-partisan status — it says to organisations that actually we can’t trust you so we will instead gag you — no matter the cost.

I’m not going to really going into the effect of ‘purdah’ on individual Civil Servants other to say this. Like so much else the very spirit of what it is trying to achieve entirely belongs in a pre-internet era. When individual, personal Twitter accounts can count on more reach and engagement than official channels where should you draw the line? Because the all or enough muting of an entire work force cannot be a sustainable solution. All it encourages is stealth communications, anonymous accounts and general confusion.

My biggest problem with ‘purdah’ though is much more specific and born out of personal experience. The use (and mis-use) of data is becoming increasingly common in political campaigning and yet when we need them most the very body created to provide and police the use of that data is forced to say silent. The Government Statistical Service has a mission that reads;

High quality statistics, analysis and advice to help Britain make better decisions.

Yet at a time when Britain is make the most vital of decisions our independent experts on the data of the day are unable to provide analysis nor advice.

Now Michael Gove might no longer want to confer with experts but I think it is safe to say that they still have a role to play and benching them all at a time like this just seems increasingly like folly (and it isn’t just the statisticians, economists and demographers in Newport and Fareham — there are Civil Service experts all over the UK who will be biting their tongues for the next seven weeks.)

These experts, engaging in the right way, on the right channels, are the best weapons against #fakenews and not allowing them to operate is basically surrendering for the entire pre-election period.

There are amazing organisations like Full Fact who step into the breech but they themselves have called on the Government to re-examine the rules when it comes to these roles.

When I first pitched the idea that became Visual.ONS the ambition was always that it would provide an accessible route into ONS data — using interesting formats and providing timely tools based on what was happening in the world. This gets rather weakened though if you are forced to go dark for the entire period and not even promote the work that already exists!

Clearly nothing was going to change this time — a snap election caught everyone on the hop but there really needs to be some evidence of change. With Brexit consuming pretty much every corner of the Civil Service though I fear the guidance will just once again be put in a drawer (or the GDS web archive) to be dusted off in five years with no thought given to it in the meantime and who knows where we will be then!

I can say this now as I am for the first time in almost 15 years not covered by the Civil Service code or ‘purdah’ but in my heart I know I am not finished with that chapter and one day will return so I’ll keep pushing for a new approach to save my frustrations when I do!