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Downing Street to cut back Whitehall communications unit

Downing Street is launching plans to dramatically reduce the government’s communications operation and to televise daily White House-style press briefings, in the latest shake-up of the Whitehall machine.

Several government officials confirmed that Number 10 had announced internally on Thursday that press offices across Whitehall could be slimmed down to a maximum of 30 staff. There are currently 4,000 communication staff working across more than 20 government departments.

Communication teams will be line-managed by the Cabinet Office instead of individual departments under a new “single employer model” developed by Alex Aiken, the executive director for government communications. 

“The plan is for press officers to play more of a rebuttal role,” said one official familiar with the plans. “The tectonic plates are moving. It’s all part of the civil service purge and efforts to slimline teams.”

The televised daily lobby briefings with journalists once a day from Downing Street from October will have a similar format to White House press briefings in the US.

An experienced broadcaster is being recruited to lead the on-camera afternoon lobby briefings on behalf of the government. They will be filmed at No 9 Downing Street. Off-camera morning briefings will continue to be held behind closed doors.

“People want to hear directly what the government is doing and to see it being held to account,” a No 10 official said.

The move comes as part of a wider shake-up of the civil service overseen by the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove.

Work on proposals to reduce the number of communications staff in government departments has been going on since the autumn, officials said. Plans to televise lobby briefings have also been “in the works for a while”.

Civil service reform has been a main objective of Boris Johnson’s government — particularly for Mr Cummings, who believes that Whitehall is responsible for many policy failures.

Mr Johnson’s top aide this week warned special advisers — political appointments who are hired to support ministers — that a “hard rain is coming” to Whitehall and the coronavirus outbreak would expedite his plans to reform the civil service. 

Officials said moves to reduce the number of communications staff across government would allow for directors of communications to gain promotions and lead to better pay for staff overall.

“The government is fortunate to have some of the best communications professionals in the world but it is very difficult to defend there now being more than 4,000 spin-doctors on the payroll,” one No 10 official said.

“People want an efficient and transparent government which delivers on their priorities and provides value for money — and that is what the PM is going to deliver.”

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