Coping with the ‘pre-election period’ as a public sector communicator

So here we are with 38 days to go until the General Election. It seems like we have been talking about it for ages – indeed much of the media has. But now Parliament has been dissolved and purdah is upon us. So what does this period mean for public sector communicators?

This is my third General Election working in the NHS. Plus for the 2010 election I was working at the Department of Health in Whitehall and Leeds. This places the topic onto a wholly new level.

This period can restrict the activities of civil servants who are required to remain politically neutral. Government ministers remain in charge of their departments and in the event of a crisis there are plans that swing into action. But this is generally a quieter time in Whitehall itself.

Detailed guidance is issued to civil servants on how to remain politically impartial during this period and the Civil Service Code has always existed to offer advice on standards and core values expected of civil servants. But this election has brought about the need to underline advice on the use of social media to ensure use is appropriate at this sensitive time. An interesting development of our time.

In my experience the pace was certainly slower in Whitehall during the pre-election period. Staff were nervous of work not easily labelled ‘business as usual’ and decisions were less forthcoming. The popular ostrich style strategy of booking leave in this period seemed to be popular too.

Working directly in the NHS is tough during pre-election time. The NHS will always be a major campaigning ground and therefore photo opportunities with satisfied inpatients on wards and A&E staff in uniform undoubtedly have a much greater than usual cache.

This creates problems for NHS communications teams. Through the auspices of impartiality if an NHS trust permits a visit from one wannabe candidate from a political party of one colour, then visits from parties of all colours must be granted. Once one of them gets inside the hospital grounds and the photos are all over Twitter, the rest are bound to press their noses up against the glass doors of A&E to request a photo opportunity too.

This can really create a lot of work for the already busy comms team. And even more so for overworked frontline staff. I wrote a recent blog post about how NHS trusts need to more carefully plan VIP and official visits in the wake of the Saville investigation, so we’re in very different territory for activity such as this now.

But some are approaching this pre-election period and the flurry of visit requests in a new way. The intention being to safeguard the time of frontline staff not for glad handing – but direct patient care. The Royal Free Hospital in north London has declared itself a visit free zone. It will be refusing all requests during this period. Brave? Yes. Well considered? Most certainly.

Official statement

A statement from the trust said: “Pre-election guidance states that a candidate’s request to visit a particular section of the trust may be granted only if the same opportunity is granted to all rival candidates, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the service.

“A policy was therefore put in place by the hospital board to safeguard the trust’s political impartiality while minimising disruption and ensuring the smooth running of our hospital services.”

So election candidates of any colour are not welcome. It’s a bold move and I’m not aware of others who have taken such a decisive stance. I suggested this approach in my organisation. It was not adopted. I can understand both sides of the argument.

People who work in the NHS are generally passionate about it’s roots. And the ethos of providing free care at the point of need. We’re touched by the NHS from the start to the end of our lives – and lots of times in between. This means we have personal experiences and views that shape our attitudes to this world renowned public institution. No wonder why political candidates exude such passion for a healthcare system that we all care so deeply about.

This should not come at the expense of efficient delivery of patient care. Particularly when NHS staff are stretched. So with 38 days to go communications teams across the country will be preparing for the calls that may come for visits to be arranged, hands to be shaken (alcohol gelled hands that is), new born babies to be kissed and A&E teams to be marvelled at, but I am one NHS communicator who is feeling genuinely anxious about the requests that may come in the next few weeks.

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