£1bn Big Society ad plan founders on small matter of who pays

No one should blame Steve Hilton, Downing Street head of policy, for thinking Big. That, after all, is one of the things he is paid to do. What worries me is the lack of detail in his Big Picture. He’s evidently a landscape man, a pointillist who leaves other people to join up the dots and make sense of it all.

Except they can’t. How are hard-pressed GPs to serve the needs of their patients while simultaneously doubling up as the NHS’ new frontline bureaucrats? Likewise the advertising business, which believes the government is trying to pull a fast one on it. Why should it be expected to shoulder the burden of a hollowed-out COI, simply out of public duty?

As one industry luminary told me recently: “The rhetoric is classic Big Society, all about community spirit. The reality is likely to be a centralised bureaucracy – under the aegis of this so-called Ad Council – which will be even bigger than the COI’s used to be. And we’ll be asked to pick up part of the tab. Not a good idea. Don’t we do enough already with initiatives like Media Trust, pro bono work and CSR – without propping up the government’s propaganda department?”

In fact, the Communications Review – as it is grandly called in the Cabinet Office – ranges rather more widely than the COI’s current remit (known in Whitehall lingo as government direct communications). It is this broader canvas that a scratch committee of the Good and the Wise – among them Sir Martin Sorrell, Martha Lane-Fox, Robin Wight, David Abraham and Amanda Mackenzie – has been convoked to consider. The schedule is tight. The committee was announced  in mid-January and I hear that Matt Tee, the Cabinet Office permanent secretary chairing it – who is soon to be on his way – would like a result by the end  of this month. Yet the first serious meeting took place only yesterday and detail, according to one participant, remains light. Has anyone else got the impression that this is simply a rubber-stamp body?

What other things might it consider, beyond the future of the COI? Well, total government spend on communications dwarfs the COI’s £540m budget when it was in its pomp. One informed estimate puts it at over £1bn annually. Consisting of, other than scaled-down government direct communications? To give the flavour, there are something like 7,000 people permanently employed in communications across various government departments. And massive contracts out there that the COI no longer gets a sniff of, because they now operate directly out of  the relevant department of state. One such is a 10-year communications contract covering recruitment across all three arms of the Forces. “The Ministry of Defence can’t even manage to build its battleships within budget, so God knows what it’s doing in an area where it has no competence whatsoever,”  a source tells me. “It’s crazy, there are no rules.”

Then, of course, there’s the future ownership of Government media vehicles, such as DirectGov, to consider…

The ambition of this Government is mind-boggling. But so is its poor grasp of detail.

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