24 May 2024

What goes on in Whitehall during a general election?

With the general election having been called, most people assume the work of civil servants will grind to a halt. Lisa Hunter, former Deputy Chief Executive of the Government Communication Service, explains what really goes on in Whitehall during the campaign.

Lisa Hunter

Civil servants are well used to the sensitivities of the pre-election period, often referred to as  ‘purdah’ – especially as we all had plenty of practise over recent years – but there’s a common misconception that absolutely nothing happens now until July 5th. Tools are downed. Thumbs are twiddled. But that’s not the case.

Purdah means the civil service will now avoid any activity that could call into question its political impartiality or distract from election campaigning. This often leads to very tricky conversations with Ministers, who can become frustrated during this time not least because they remain Ministers of State until the new government is formed. But it’s essential the civil service ensures public resources are not used for party political purposes. Equally though, the business of the UK Government, and the public services it provides, continues.

From a government communications point of view,  extreme caution will now be taken. I’ve lost count of how many conversations I had about which account a video could be published on and whether a Minister could, or could not, ‘retweet’ it onto their own personal channels. Generally big, flagship announcements that were in the pipeline, will now be completely halted.

But that doesn’t mean radio silence. Unemployment figures will still be published, public health campaigns will still run, should there be a crisis that will still need to be managed. The business of government very much continues in the background and government communicators will ensure the public still hear about what they need to know.

It is a quieter time, undoubtedly, as the usual drumbeat of activity is paused. But don’t be surprised if civil servants don’t get back to you over the next few weeks. Strategy colleagues will be pouring through the manifestos to get departments prepared for what may be coming their way, extensive new Minister packs are being drawn up to ensure new Ministers can hit the ground running.

Right now, civil servants have been plunged into the middle of Limbo Land and are trying to navigate through it as successfully as possible because, whilst they may be well used to purdah by this point, this one will definitely feel very different.

Lisa Hunter is Head of Strategic Communications at MHP Group.

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