IPSA and the failure to communicate

When the parliamentary expenses scandal broke in 2009, three things happened. The Telegraph won ‘Scoop of the Year’ at the British Press Awards off the back of its investigative reporting of MPs expenses. There was an almighty thump as, around the UK, jaws hit the floor as stories of Westminster largesse were revealed. And MPs were relieved of responsibility for dealing with their own pay and expenses, power for which was transferred to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, IPSA.

IPSA has always been an unloved organisation and has been criticised by the press and parliamentarians – and pretty much everyone in between. And today it again made headlines for the wrong reasons when it emerged MPs are to receive a ten percent (approximately £7,000) pay rise.

As announcements go, this one has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon. And that’s because, as any political consultant would tell you, it’s a decision that’s been attacked from both sides. For the general public it’s something of a kick in the teeth after they’ve endured years of rising prices that haven’t been matched by wages. For those working in the public sector, it adds insult to injury, given that public sector pay rises in recent years have been about as common as snowflakes in the Sahara.

Quite simply, from a public, trade union and media perspective, it all seems a bit Animal Farm. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

But there’s an irony in that while IPSA’s decision hasn’t been well received by the public, it’s been almost as poorly received by Parliament. MPs of every political persuasion have been lining up to suggest they might not take the pay rise – although it’s worth noting that numerous Members have argued in recent years that their salaries are not commensurate with the work they do.

The problem for IPSA is two-fold. Firstly, it’s organisational. It was created in haste following the expenses scandal and the flaws in its structure and remit are now being shown up under a spotlight. The Commons is unable to vote down the pay increase without voting to disestablish IPSA – showing a fundamental flaw in a body that was formed on sound principles.

The second issue is one of communication. The question of MPs’ pay has been kicking around for a while. Some MPs have argued they’re not paid enough for what they do. The public will argue they most certainly are. And still outstanding is the question whether increasing MPs salaries would reduce the need/desire for them to have or seek outside financial interests that have occasionally resulted in scandal.

Throughout all of this, IPSA has indicated its position is that MP salaries need to rise. What it has failed to do is adequately make its case and provide an evidence base to prove its position. The result is that IPSA has become, once again, a last in a chain of anger – with the public frustrated with MPs for appearing to enjoy a continued privileged existence, while MPs will be angered with IPSA for putting them in that position.

This is a lesson that any organisation can learn from in its external communications. If you’re going to make and communicate a decision, you’ve got to first make sure you can back it up.