Poor communication causes ministerial resignation

Posted on 12/12/2010


Snow. In England, it leaves people stranded in Sevenoaks, turning the mild mannered folk of middle England panicking at being cut off. But in Scotland, things have got far more serious.

Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson has resigned saying he:

Could have done much more to ensure that members of the public were better informed of the situation

In fact, his failure was worse than this. It was a breakdown in communications and a classic public relations fail.

How and why the Scottish Government seemed to be getting different weather forecasts from almost everyone else is now the subject of an inquiry, but regardless of what the facts are and how “caught out by a perfect storm” the Government was, the real failing was in communication.

The first mistake was, in spite of growing evidence to the contrary, Stevenson appeared on Newsnight to claim the response was not only “first class”, but the difficulty solving the problem was one caused by motorists themselves:

A key part of that was an unforecast snowfall at peak time which meant that, of course, that the very people that are stuck there are the ones who, through no fault whatsoever of their own, have created the difficulty getting to the points where jack-knifed lorries have been blocking roads.

Interestingly, All Media Scotland has suggested that a lack of communication between Westminster and Holyrood meant that the UK-wide version of Newsnight had no minister floundering, the Scottish opt-out had Stevenson setting himself up for a fall.

The following morning, his error had become clear. “Feckless,” wrote the Record in a stinging attack – not on the Government’s handling of the issue, but of Stevenson’s reaction.

And it got worse, as Stevenson appeared stuck in his own bolt hole, oblivious to what was going on. The Scottish Sun revealed his bolt hole was a four-star luxury hotel.

In response, the Scottish Government claimed he has there because:

Mr Stevenson was directing Government operations to ease the transport situation late into the night. His schedule dictated he remain in Edinburgh.

Well, had he tried to get home, he may have had a better understanding of what was going on in the real world.

The Guardian has a pretty good summary of the fiasco.

Sadly, as is so often the case in governmental communications failures, it’s the lack of clear, joined up information coupled with Ministers who aren’t briefed in real time on the situation which causes the problem. In this instance, it also caused a resignation.