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RIPping the heart out of government comms

If you want an exemplary lesson in how to throw the baby out with the bathwater, look no further than the Cabinet Office’s muddled plans for superseding the Central Office of Information.

Admire, first of all, the masterly language of its press release: economic to the point of curtness, yet replete with the kind of ambiguity that once sent the Light Brigade charging down the wrong valley. Clearly the release is written by – and at the behest of – people who haven’t got a clue about the most basic principles of marketing. They seem to think it’s just another branch of PR.

Now let’s move to some of the detail, such as it is. Ostensibly, Cabinet Office “Enforcer” Francis Maude has finessed the advice of his recently departed top adviser, Matt Tee, into a much more economical proposition. Tee’s report, it may be remembered, recommended the COI be streamlined into a fleeter, rebranded, organisation of only 150 employees (2 years ago, it had a staff of about 730). Maude has got the bit between his teeth and evidently believes that government can dispense in its entirety with the services of a formal centralised body orchestrating its communications.

Instead, all government marcoms will now be remitted to the departments of state where they originate, unmolested except by “a new governance structure” of 20 people, dedicated to the ruthless eradication of all duplication and waste. So important is this new department of oversight that it has as yet no name, being referred to quaintly as the ‘Communications Delivery Board’. Another of the heretofore COI’s critical functions, the appointment of agencies, will be hived off to a small “specialist communications procurement unit under the leadership of Government Procurement”. Let’s see how the department of shoes and ships and sealing wax deals with that one. Finally, the rag-tag-and-bobtail of “specialist services” will be placed in “a shared comms delivery pool”, whatever that may be.

The important point to note is that the dismembered functions of the COI will now operate as fully-fledged arms of the Cabinet Office, rather than being semi-detached from it. In other words, they will be vulnerable to covert, if ignorant, political manipulation in a way they were not under the ancien régime. The litmus test of manipulation will be in the appointment of the CDB’s new executive director. Currently, the COI retains some private-sector savvy assets in the form of its chairman Chris Wood and its non-executive director Simon Marquis. It is not clear, however, that either of these will, or will wish to, succeed to the new, attenuated, top role. The most likely appointee will be someone with Tee’s kind of background – a director of comms, skilled at garnering positive press headlines but with no practical knowledge of marketing.

Not everyone will be dissatisfied with this outcome. The big-spending departments of state, such as Health and Transport, are no doubt savouring a famous victory. Under Tee’s proposals, they would have been issuing P45s to many of their dedicated marcoms people. Not only has that idea been kicked into touch: these departments will now be in control of their expenditure in a way they can only have dreamt of a decade ago, when the idea of departmental UDI first erupted during Carol Fisher’s contentious reign as COI chief.

Alas, Health and Transport are the exceptions that prove the rule. They can boast of high profile, successful campaigns – such as Drink Drive and Change4Life – with considerable resources irrevocably committed to them, even in the present austere climate. Elsewhere, the glee may be rather short-lived. Take more occasional users of the taxpayer’s shilling, such as the Department of Justice. No amount of astute manipulation of the headlines by its press secretary was ever going to win the public over to the odious idea that dangerous prisoners might be let out earlier if they owned up to their crimes. The winning argument – centering on making the overloaded justice system more effective and less profligate with public money – is a subtle one, best embedded in a long-running strategic campaign. And who better qualified to help devise it than the old-style COI, informed by the most up-to-date techniques of behavioural nudge?

No chance of that under the new regime. Indeed, with so few experts employed, it would be no surprise to see the government’s communication programme collapse under the weight of its workload. The complete abolition of the COI is a cynical economy too far. Sadly, the Government will probably only come to realise this as we approach the next general election – and marcoms spend soars once again.

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2 Responses to RIPping the heart out of government comms

  1. Michael Fogg says:

    As a PR man (and former member of staff at COI), I find it amusing that the current government’s formal line is that “spin is bad”.

    Um…..

    So – what process exactly got you to that simple and easily understood message then?

  2. Annabella Clayton says:

    Hmmm, I wonder how many ministers and top government bods already have their fingers in private sector marketing and communications companies…

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