Wednesday, 18 November 2009

In defence of the public sector

An interesting night last night, as PRCA in-house associate member Keith Johnston (from STEP) and I defended the public sector's use of PR and PA agencies in a debate with the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA).

It happened because we wouldn't let a TPA 'research' report into public sector comms stand. They argued that public bodies were spending vast amounts of money on comms and lobbying, and should somehow be legally prohibited from using PR and PA agencies. In fact, they went further than that, and argued in favour of a slash and burn programme of cuts to public sector comms. To their credit, they accepted our challenge to a debate, and the English Speaking Union was kind enough to host us.

The TPA's argument was the bizarre one that all comms serves to reinforce the status quo, and to cement the Government's position. They use the word 'government' to cover any public body, including, for example, all local authorities. I really must break the news to the 200+ Conservative Councils that they are , in fact, doing Gordon Brown's work...

We disagreed naturally. And we made three points. First, that public sector bodies have a duty to communicate with their voters, their taxpayers and their customers. Second, that to suggest this comms activity is all intended to support Central Government's agenda is patently nuts. And third, that using an agency to bring in special expertise is often the sensible, financially responsible thing to do.

Well, it was an interesting debate, and in my thoroughly biased opinion, I thought we edged it. Even if we were up against someone who was specifically -and rather strangely- introduced as the 'World Debating Champion'. Just who did he beat to get that title? Was it a United Nations hosted face-off with Obama and Blair that he just edged on points??

The result? Well, we lost by a few votes. But then again the TPA had brought along more staff than we had. And they all voted for their boss, natch.

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