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Has Francis ‘Jerrycan’ Maude committed an even bigger blunder with “Son of COI”?

Cabinet Office minister Francis “Jerrycan” Maude’s legendary communications skills were on full display last week, with a gaffe that caused the Government its worst wobble since the election.

Let’s hope this is not an omen. Maude is, among other responsibilities, the minister in charge of direct government communications. Meaning: he has been the prime mover behind the dissolution of the Central Office of Information, which officially closed on March 29th, and the fashioning of its hypoglycaemic successor, the Government Communications Centre.

It’s too early to write off “Son of COI” as another one of Maude’s blunders – yet. Only time, and ramped-up expenditure in anticipation of the next general election, will give a definitive answer on that. Nevertheless, it is clear the new organisation will face formidable challenges right from the start.

No one, including COI insiders, can take serious exception to Maude’s fundamental critique of the 66-year old institution: that it was spending far too much (not least on itself) and needed to be cut down to size.

What has incensed critics is the savage severity of the resultant pruning, and the furtive ideological makeover accompanying it.

Let’s take a helicopter view of what has happened.

The new GCC team will be expected to carry out all the essential tasks of its predecessor at the COI. That is to say, it will coordinate Whitehall departmental campaigns from the centre, evaluate them, foster cooperation between these departments, media plan and buy for them and monitor the media results.

The COI once boasted a team of over 700 to accomplish these tasks; even towards the end, and after savage cuts, it could still muster a headcount of 400. The GCC, by contrast, currently has a full complement heading towards 150.

That figure, small though it is, does not fully reflect the painful new reality. Nearly half of the new team is made up of already existing communications (ie PR) staff  extracted from the departments of state. They are not (it almost goes without saying) marcoms experts and would not have formed a part of the COI’s remit. So the marcoms element of the team is lean indeed.

Moving on, the integration of comms and marcoms might seem no bad idea. And in principle it is not. Many would argue that PR people have grasped the potential – and limitations – of digital media, particularly the so-called social graph, far better than those working in traditional brand management.

That should not blind us to the dangers, however. Particularly those inherent in a merger where comms has come out top.

Significant in this respect is the Government’s decision to appoint Jenny Grey as permanent executive director (CEO) of the GCC, in January. By all accounts, Grey is a popular and competent executive, but she has zero experience of traditional private sector marcoms. Previously she was director of policy and communications for No 10 and the Cabinet Office (responsibilities she retains as part of her new role). Before joining the civil service in 2008 she worked for the Audit Commission, Cancer Research and the NHS. Her career began in agency PR.

In appointing Grey, the Government went back on its previous commitment to pick a marketer from the private sector. Grey is no doubt a popular ‘insider’ choice. Clearly, she is well liked in the Cabinet Office. And the departments of state are unlikely to have objected either, inasmuch as one of their own – a civil servant – will now be running the co-ordinating shop.

But the decision does leave you wondering who will be qualified to do business with the outside world: private sector contractors – marcoms agencies prime among them.

The answer to this question might, in other circumstances, have been Grey’s deputy, Wendy Proctor. Proctor had plenty of ad agency experience before she became client services director at the Department of Health. But in her new role as deputy director, Cabinet Office shared communications service, she will have her work cut out managing the undermanned “shared delivery” pooling system that ministers to the needs of the 7 government department “hubs” set up as part of the administrative reform programme.

These “hubs” are themselves experimental and rather controversial. It remains to be seen how well they will work in aggregating and filtering departmental work.

So the GCC will be a much smaller, more inward-looking creature than its predecessor. It will have a very steep learning curve. Its mindset will be that of the comms department and, indeed, of government ministers. It will favour short, sharp, “messages”, designed to curry favour with the Daily Mail and opinion polls over long-term strategic programmes whose true value may not become apparent until well after the next general election.

Even it were interested in some new equivalent of DrinkDrive or Change4Life, where nowadays would it find the resources to properly evaluate such programmes?

Marcoms, once the COI fairytale princess, has ended up being Cinderella at the GCC.

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