A powerful new communications supremo has been installed in the Department of Finance as part of efforts to reform Stormont before any return of devolution.
The post, which is two grades higher than the normal press office positions within departments, will see the individual report directly to the permanent secretary, former senior Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray.
The head of communications and engagement role will oversee both the press office as well as the department’s Freedom of Information (FoI) responsibilities, the publication of open data, internal communication and the ministerial private office, presiding over a £1.5 million budget and sitting on the departmental board.
The post, which was created on Ms Gray’s instructions at unusually short notice, has been awarded to Mark McLaughlin, a former press officer in Stormont Castle who is well regarded both by colleagues and journalists.
But one senior political figure involved in Stormont before its collapse said that “ministers would have been slaughtered had they suggested such a thing”.
The role – which was not advertised outside the civil service – is, on paper at least, part of a push for transparency in a Stormont system which has long been known for its secrecy.
Ironically, that push for openness is coming at the direction of Ms Gray, who while in the Cabinet Office in 2015 was described by BBC Newsnight’s then policy editor Chris Cook as “the most powerful civil servant you’ve never heard of” and “also perhaps the most secretive you could ever hope to meet”.
Ms Gray is heading up the transparency section of the Stormont talks.
Internal Department of Finance (DoF) emails show that a civil service HR officer asked if the individual – whose salary is between £70,000 and £80,000 – would be reporting to a grade three (a deputy permanent secretary) as they said that would be usual, but was told that they would instead be reporting directly to Ms Gray.
Mr McLaughlin will “lead on handling of FoI requests” with a responsibility to “champion openness and transparency” and adopt a “more proactive approach in publishing material and data online”.
He will also have a responsibility to ensure that FoI requests “are managed and responded to in a timely and effective way and as openly as possible”. Internal material referring to the role repeatedly refers to the importance of responding to the RHI Inquiry.
The new communications post follows Department of Health Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly’s decision to create a senior PR role which was filled by David Gordon, the former Executive spin doctor and editor of the Nolan Show, eight months after Stormont’s collapse.
The News Letter asked DoF if it had considered the implications of the creation of a cadre of powerful public relations figures in each department, especially if devolution returns and they are operating under rival ministers. It also asked about the inherent tension between appointing the same individual to both oversee FoI requests and head up the department’s press office, which attempts to present a positive spin on whatever the department has done.
The department said that FoI had “not been amalgamated within the press office” and said it was “committed to open government and all FoI requests are handled in accordance with the legislation”.
It added: “The reason for aligning open government and FoI is to help inform our openness agenda.”
Officials working to create the new communications post moved with unusual alacrity, circumventing the normal cumbersome processes involved with such a situation because of the urgency and importance attached to the role by DoF permanent secretary Sue Gray.
In an April 6 email to a colleague, civil service human resources officer Sonya Kilpatrick said of the urgency: “Sorry this is not ideal but you will understand that this is not normal process and we are all working outside of process to get it done quickly”.
On another occasion, Ms Kilpatrick told the permanent secretary that “as you know there are certain formalities that we have to adhere [to] but we have cut these back as much as possible ... I appreciate the launch is one week later than you wanted but we have compressed the timetable as much as possible and if all goes to plan you will have the result within six weeks”.
The post will involve work “to create a closer sense of corporacy and unity across the department and the wider NICS”.