Quiet revolutionary makes mark on Whitehall

Howell James is working to overhaul the Government's communications machine.

When Howell James became the Government's communications chief in July 2004, he was worried that Labour would distrust him because he was a Tory, the Conservatives would think he had defected to Labour and his fellow civil servants would not know what to make of him.

So the Government's first permanent secretary for communications decided to tread carefully. The fact that a general election was in the offing made him even more cautious.

But the first fruits of his behind-the-scenes work are becoming visible as he seeks to re-engineer Whitehall's huge press, advertising and marketing machine for today's changing communications world. And he is finally, if cautiously, emerging from the shadows.

James wants the Government Communications Network to do what the best of the private sector has been doing for some time - connecting with its customers. People place more trust in personal networks than traditional news or advertising, he believes.

"Old communication doesn't work any more with audiences who are sceptical, distracted and indifferent - and at the same time vocal, demanding and insistent," he says.

His three-year "Engage" programme of civil service training, courses and seminars launched last week. It is designed to make communications an integral part of policy development and delivery, rather than a last-minute add-on when departments want to put out a press release.

Where, then, does advertising fit into this quiet revolution? In some ways, James believes the Government's advertising is ahead of the game.

"We have learned a lot from the advertising and marketing campaigns and I hope it will now apply across everything," he says.

The Whitehall mantra of "joined-up government" is already evident in its approach to advertising. COI was an early example of that and it recently entrenched its position by taking responsibility for the Directgov cross-departmental website, and the Government's media monitoring unit and regional news network. But there is always a tension between Whitehall empires and the centre. Departments tend to defend their turf and regard centrally run initiatives with suspicion. Part of James' job is to break down such barriers.

For example, the Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions, both big ad spenders, want a more arms-length relationship with COI so their marketing officials can liaise with advertising agencies directly.

James sees nothing wrong with a more flexible approach. "Departments are improving their understanding of this market, but still feel they get value (from COI)," he says. "How do you access the expertise that you want at COI and pay a fair rate for it? I see this really as a perfectly proper negotiation between COI and departments over what value they add and how it gets transferred between them.

"Alan Bishop (COI's chief executive) is very responsive to that and understands the pressures, but he doesn't want to lose the benefits of integration, benchmarking and sharing. The drive across government is towards shared services on a whole range of issues. I don't think the spirit is unwilling. It is about getting a mechanism to make it work effectively."

The Government's £165 million annual advertising spend looks remarkably buoyant. But will the shake-up he plans mean a switch away from ads to new media? "It's too soon to say," he replies, but admits it could happen in the long term. "Putting more information on the web, giving people an easier route to navigate it, finding out what is available to them and being able to do the transaction in a seamless way is the future," he says. "There will be a continuing role for news management and paid communication, but I think there will be an increasing role for more unmediated information, as people choose what they're interested in and edit it themselves."

Advertising will have to justify its share of the cake. "We will continue to look at value for money and make sure what we do continues to reach audiences. COI and the departments have always been very vigorous in testing their campaigns. The Treasury doesn't give money for campaigns without being satisfied the objectives are clear and being met," he says.

There is no doubt that James is well-qualified for his task. After a stint as the head of promotions at Capital Radio, he was TV-am's head of publicity when it launched in 1983. He "went political" the following year by becoming a special adviser at the Cabinet Office, Department of Employment and Department of Trade and Industry. In 1987, James joined the BBC as its director of corporate affairs, moving to do the same job for Cable & Wireless in 1992. He returned to the political arena in 1994, when he became the political secretary to Prime Minister John Major, remaining by his side at Downing Street until his exit at the 1997 election. James was a founding partner of the corporate PR company Brown Lloyd James, where he served on a review of government communications.

Unusually, James helped to write his own job description - his current post was recommended by the review, which found that the civil service had "not grasped the potential of modern communications as a service provided for citizens".

James is described as "larger than life" by Whitehall colleagues. But some of them expected him to have a more immediate impact, given his wealth of experience. His softly, softly approach to knitting together his initiative with the directors of information and marketing in each department was perhaps dictated by his known political leanings.

Some insiders speculate that James' Tory background may limit his clout where it matters - 10 Downing Street. He floats above the day-to-day media management that inevitably forces any government to rely on crisis management and sends the best laid strategic plans out of the window. "He doesn't see it as his job to try to get the message out when there's a crisis," one insider says.

James believes it is harder for the Government than a company to refocus its communications. He says: "We have to be accountable and to build people's understanding of their rights and responsibilities . We have to persuade people it can be in their, and society's, interest to do things differently. And we have to communicate with all parts of our nation, even most difficult to reach." The Whitehall revolution "won't happen overnight", James concedes.

Name: Howell James
Age: 52
Family: None
Lives: Central London
Favourite ads: Sony Bravia "balls" and the "Julie" ad that urged
back-seat car passengers to wear seat-belts: extremely graphic images
have had real success in changing behaviours
What's your media diet? Too much ... mainly news on TV, radio,
newspapers and online. I'm a media junkie and suffer badly from
Describe yourself in three words: Happy, optimistic, hungry
Hobbies: Movies and trying to take more exercise as I get older
Personal mantra: Don't tell, ask