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Strategic Communications Unit

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 24 April 2018

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently published review of the operation of the strategic communications unit in his Department. [15860/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the progress on delivering the recommendations of the report on the review of the strategic communications unit. [16463/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the report on matters relating to the strategic communications unit that was published in late March 2018. [16497/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

4. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the position regarding the report on matters relating to the strategic communications unit that was published in late March 2018. [16524/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the status of the implementation of the report to wind down the strategic communications unit. [17613/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (24 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

On 1 March, I requested that the Secretary General of my Department conduct a review into the operations of the strategic communications unit, SCU. The report from this review was accepted by the Government on 27 March and published on the same date.

The report finds that there is significant benefit to be realised by implementing the communications reform programme which had been led by the SCU. Furthermore, rapid progress had been made by the SCU in implementing its Government-approved work programme and it has played a very important role in improving cross-Government communications. In regard to Project Ireland 2040, the report finds no evidence of a breach of the Civil Service code by civil servants in the SCU, whether by seeking favourable coverage for Fine Gael candidates or otherwise.

However, the report also notes that dealing with the intense political and media interest in the work of the SCU had come to dominate much of the time of the staff of the unit and of senior management. By way of illustration, the SCU had, at the time of the review, been the subject of 203 parliamentary questions and 63 freedom of information requests, as well as a number of other debates, Leaders' Questions in the Dáil and a large number of press queries. This intense focus had been impacting my Department’s ability to focus on its everyday work and strategic priorities. This situation was not sustainable for my Department if it was to discharge its core functions.

In light of the aforementioned considerations, the Secretary General of my Department has made the following recommendations, which will be implemented over the coming months: that the SCU should be wound down; that the Department should revert to a reformed Government Information Service, GIS, model, with a smaller budget, fewer staff and a more limited role than the SCU; that measures should be put in place across Departments which preserve the valuable and necessary reforms to ensure value for money, professionalisation and modernisation in Government communications activity; that there will not be any new national campaigns run by the SCU, with the GIS continuing to have a co-ordinating and supporting role for national cross-Government communications, as has always been the case, but with such campaigns led and funded by the relevant line Department, if there is one; that international communications such as Global Ireland, the Security Council campaign, or the diaspora will be led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; that the future communication of Project Ireland 2040 will be the responsibility of the new Project Ireland 2040 delivery board, which will be led by the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government; that a number of aspects of the communications programme, such as the single Government identity programme, the migration to one single web portal, gov.ie, the capacity-building work for staff and the research survey will continue to be implemented; and that there will be a managed reversion to the more traditional GIS model, with a transition period until July 2018.

This transition is now underway and will conclude on schedule. The reassignment of staff is being dealt with as a confidential HR matter by the management of the Department in consultation with each individual staff member. As outlined in the review, surplus staff will be given the opportunity to be reassigned to another post either within my Department or in other Departments or agencies. In some cases, the duties of staff will not change as they either predated the establishment of the SCU or their work will continue in a reformed GIS. There will be no redundancies arising from the implementation of the recommendations of the review.

The 2018 funding allocation for the unit has been reduced from €5 million to €2.5 million to reflect the fact that the mandate ends in July. The result will be that my Department's Estimate in total will be 9% less than it was in 2017.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach as ucht a chuid freagraí. First, I welcome the publication of the report on 27 March by the Ard-Rúnaí of your Department, Mr. Martin Frasier. I think it is insightful and it is useful in examining the mistakes made in the establishment of the strategic communications unit, SCU. I welcome its principal recommendation, for the SCU to be wound down by July. I have a number of questions, however. The report mentions on page 7 that the SCU engaged a company to carry out research work involving a public opinion survey. The report says that given the express concerns by Opposition parties, it would be useful if they received a briefing and gave their views on the content of that survey before it is carried out. This has not happened. When will it happen?

On the final page, the report further states, in stronger language, that the survey should only proceed once Opposition parties have given a view on the content. That is an absolute necessity. The report also recommends that the Government Information Service should continue to have a co-ordinating and supporting role for national cross-governmental communications, as has always been the case. Do that finding and that recommendation not highlight the fact that the establishment of the SCU was a flawed decision in the very first instance? Do they not highlight that if, as the Taoiseach has said on more than one occasion, the idea was for Government as an entity to initiate cross-departmental information campaigns and the like, the infrastructure was already in place to do all of that? I note also the final recommendation of the report, that the issues raised in the review might usefully be considered by the Oireachtas. I want to ask, therefore, if the Government intends to allocate time to discuss the review in the Dáil. It strikes me, given the lessons to be learned, that this would be a very useful endeavour.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Will he outline the specific changes that have occurred since the announcement on 26 March that the Secretary General's review had been accepted? What specifically has occurred and what staff have been redeployed to date? How many staff will be retained in the Government Information Service, GIS? The Taoiseach indicated that offers of redeployment would be made. Will staff be redeployed in his Department or across the public service generally?

I am also interested in learning what will happen to the research that was carried out and that which was planned. A sum of €160,000 was allocated for this purpose. We were informed in response to a parliamentary question that the research had not yet commenced. According to the reply, it is intended to run a citizen survey "to assess public awareness and understanding of Government services." As Deputy McDonald noted, the Secretary General made clear that this research should proceed only after Opposition parties had been briefed and had given their views on the contents of the survey. When will that process take place and will the research proceed?

On the overall budget, the Taoiseach indicated the budget of €5 million was to be reallocated, with €2.5 million to be retained to meet existing financial commitments. I understand from his reply that the remaining €2.5 million will be a saving to be rebated at the end of the year. Is that the case or will this money be reallocated for other specific purposes? I ask the Taoiseach to clarify the matters I have raised.

I have made clear from the outset that the strategic communications unit was a bad idea and wrong. Wittingly or unwittingly, the SCU involved the politicisation of the public service. Advertorials featuring Fine Gael Party candidates appeared in newspapers. While we do not seem to understand how that happened, it is a fact. Taxpayers' money should not be used to pay for such advertorials. The nature of many of them was promotion rather than providing information. The purpose of expensive advertisements placed at bus stops and in newspapers was promotion and in some respects propaganda, rather than providing citizens with information, as one would normally understand that function of government.

I welcome the amount of information provided in the report of the Secretary General in which he recommended the winding up of Taoiseach's pet project, the strategic communications unit. However, I encourage more people to read the detail of the report as it is in stark contrast with many of the comments and claims the Taoiseach made about the unit. From the beginning, we were informed the SCU would be established in line with worldwide best practice. The sole business case made was that the unit was best practice. Documents show, however, that only two countries were reviewed and independent information or opinion was not sought on whether such a unit should be established or what it should do. The reason was that this was the Taoiseach's idea and he proceeded to appointed the head person. Incredibly, the two countries reviewed both indicated that the agenda for such a unit should be set by the public rather than politicians and should emerge from public consultation rather than being set to fit political parties.

The Taoiseach stated originally that the objective of the research was to inform the work of the strategic communications unit. However, that work proceeded and €2.5 million was spent before any research was carried out. Will the Taoiseach explain how €2.5 million was contracted, with millions more planned, without any public consultation on the agenda?

The Taoiseach also informed the House that €178 million was being spent in a fragmented manner on advertising and needed to be rationalised. As we learned from the report, two Departments account for 60% of this expenditure, namely, the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The bulk of this was spent by independent agencies such as Fáilte Ireland and Bord Bia. The Taoiseach emphasised in the House that it was never intended that the unit would oversee the advertising budgets of these two Departments, although none of this was said in the aggressive, not-an-inch defence of the unit we heard for weeks and months. Would it not have been reasonable to supply this information before contracting millions of euro in new advertising? Will the research proceed?

Under the original budgetary estimates, €5 million was allocated for the strategic communications unit and we were informed at the time that the unit would have a staff of five. By the time the Government's programme had reached its zenith, the unit employed 15 staff and we had not been given a figure on its expenditure at that point. However, I understand from the Taoiseach's response that the cost of the unit in the months until May was €2.5 million. In other words, half of the budget was spent in four months. The SCU was a runaway train. We advised the Taoiseach as best we could that he had stepped over a line.

Today's edition of The Irish Times includes a nice historical feature on which the following is printed: "A series of special supplements supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht". Inside, the publication features a nice photograph of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan, and a page of commentary from the Minister. Is this old school or new school?

It is continuing school.

I understand officials from the Department of the Taoiseach had meetings with representatives of the three largest newspapers and other newspapers to set budgets. Were contractual agreements or indications of contracts made at any of these meetings? Why are we being left hanging on? How much did the study carried out by the Secretary General cost? One of his senior officials helped the Secretary General with his work. This has been a fiasco.

Will each Department revert to having its own public affairs function and press officer, as was the tradition? Is the Government Information Service being restored and, if so, on what basis? We deserve to know the answer to that question. If the GIS is commissioning studies, will they be made available to Dáil Éireann given that the Dáil votes for funding that is to be spent for this purpose and it is to Dáil Éireann and all of its parties and Members to which research should be made available?

I will deal first with the survey and research aspects. As outlined on 18 October 2017 and again on 22 November 2017, the research commissioned is to inform Government communications. It is intended to help the Department learn more about public awareness and understanding of Government services. As outlined in the Secretary General's review, the intention is to continue with the citizen survey after Opposition parties have had an opportunity to be briefed and to give their views on it. The research will inform best practice and support evidence based decision making on communications policies and approaches across government. When I last checked, work on this had not commenced and, as such, no survey has been done as yet and nothing has been done in the field. We have given a commitment that Opposition parties will be consulted on the questions before a survey is carried out. The issue has been de-prioritised. While it is still intended to carry out the survey at some point in the future, it is not a priority at the moment.

It is not necessary to do research in advance when it comes, for example, to finding out whether people know about Project Ireland 2040. How could people possibly know about something that had not yet been launched? I am sure the same approach was taken with regard to the national development programme and Transport 21. We do not need research to tell us that people did not know about Transport 21 before it had been launched because it would not be possible for people to know about something that was a new policy or programme. That is, therefore, a rather facile argument.

We were told that was the reason the research would be carried out.

In terms of cross-departmental campaigns, what is different is that it is no longer intended to fund cross-departmental campaigns through my Department. However, it is intended that the Government Information Service will have a role in co-ordinating cross-departmental campaigns, for example, Healthy Ireland, which cuts across different Departments. Project Ireland 2040 will be handed over in large part to the management board consisting of officials from the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government.

As for specific changes, activities have been pared back and planned campaigns have not happened. Other things have continued, such as the regional and sectoral launches of Project Ireland 2040. There were 15 staff members in the unit, of whom seven or eight already worked in communications in GIS or MerrionStreet.ie. Of those 15, only seven or eight were new or additional staff members, which is where the five or six came from before.

If it was a hospital, it would be a big number.

Some people may have had the impression that the six turned into 15. Half of those 15 were people already working in GIS or MerrionStreet.ie dealing with communications in the Department. The additional number of staff was five or six. I cannot remember the exact number. As should be the case, human resources matters are confidential and I am not going to discuss what has happened to individual staff members, where they have moved to or things like that.

Just the numbers.

I do not have the exact numbers.

The Taoiseach does not know.

That is pathetic.

The Taoiseach does not know how many people work in the unit.

Not today. I know what it was before but I do not know exactly how many are there today. Obviously, there is a process under way whereby staff members are being offered the possibility to transfer to other roles within the Department or to another agency or Department. That is being managed, as it should be, by the relevant assistant secretary general.

Is the Taoiseach not accountable to the House?

I am not getting daily or weekly reports on how many people work in the different sections of my Department.

The Taoiseach is accountable here.

That is the correct role for the Secretary General and the relevant assistant secretary general.

A sum of €2.5 million has either been spent or is already committed to things like the self-employed campaign, Healthy Ireland, Project Ireland 2040 and some other initiatives. The other €2.5 million will be rebated to the Exchequer. It is anticipated that my Department will underrun in its spending. I have fewer advisers than the three previous taoisigh and mine is one of the few Departments that has reduced its budget this year. I anticipate that sum being remitted to the Exchequer, albeit there is always the possibility that one of the inquiries might cost more than we anticipated. We will have to bear that in mind towards the end of the year as these things are reconciled.

Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned advertorials, which featured two or three Fine Gael Senators who were selected candidates. As Deputies will know, or should know from the report, all editors confirmed that they included those photographs on foot of their own decisions and were not asked or pressed to do so by anyone. That is, of course, in stark contrast to the false allegations that were made in the House. I regret that nobody has withdrawn any of quite a number of false allegations that were made regarding the SCU. I regret that we have not seen any Member withdraw those false allegations. It was also found in the report that no member of the Civil Service and no public servant breached the Civil Service code of conduct or favoured a political party in any way. Again, that was a false allegation that should be withdrawn by those who made it and who accused civil servants and public servants of engaging in political work or promoting the interests of one particular party.

I am afraid that I cannot advise Deputy Burton on the particular supplement in The Irish Times. Certainly, it returns to what was commonly done before the SCU was ever invented, which was for Departments to have inserts and supplements in newspapers.

On Creative Ireland, the Minister made the decision as to who got what financially. That was not the norm. We got that through a freedom of information request.

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