RIPping the heart out of government comms

June 24, 2011

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.


Brands get the better deal out of alcohol responsibility

March 15, 2011
The 6 health public interest organisations which abruptly withdrew from the government’s “responsibility deal” on alcohol appear to have thought they were pulling the rug from under health secretary Andrew Lansley’s love-in with industry. That’s certainly the implication of the timing of their announcement, which came 24 hours before Lansley unveiled pledges by 170 brands to support responsible drinking, eating, behaviour at work and in the home.

If that was their intention, they are sorely deceived; at least, in the short term. These public interest groups comprise sober-minded people: The Royal College of Physicians, the British Liver Trust, the British Association for the Study of the Liver, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the British Medical Association and Alcohol Concern. Yet they have acted like children, throwing their toys out of the pram because they cannot get what they want.

Worse, the gesture politics have actually back-fired. They have left Lansley’s new brand buddies looking adult, mature, responsible (albeit ever so slightly smug). Achieving clear unit labelling on more than 80% per cent of alcoholic drinks by 2013 may seem a fairly nugatory achievement in the wider public health battle against binge drinking and youthful alcoholism. But at least it’s a positive headline.

Whereas, the strategy of the breakaway NGOs is simply dumbfounding. Either they were extremely naive, or extremely cynical, in subscribing to the “responsibility deal” in the first place. Naive if they thought Lansley was going to do anything other than sign a concordat with industry – in lieu of (as he himself expresses it) expensive and time-consuming legislative restrictions. Or cynical, if they knowingly signed up for a project in which they had no confidence, merely to scupper it at a politically sensitive moment.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, formerly president of the Royal College of Physicians – and one of the defectors’ most articulate spokesmen – put his finger on their dilemma nearly 6 months ago. He signed up to the alcohol responsibility deal network even though he was sceptical of a “meaningful convergence between the interests of the industry and public health, since the priority of the drinks industry was to make money for shareholders, while public health demanded a cut in consumption… On alcohol, there is undoubtedly a need for regulation on price, availability and marketing – and there is a risk that discussions will be deflected away from regulation that is likely to be effective but would affect sales.”

In fact, Lansley had made it clear right from the start that he wanted a voluntary, not a regulatory, approach; and that the pricing of alcohol as a regulatory consumption mechanism was not part of the deal’s terms of reference.

Quizzed yesterday on why the 6 had pulled out, Gilmore observed: “It is not acceptable for the drinks industry to drive the pace and direction that […] public health policy takes.”

That may seem like pique (and indeed it is), but it shrewdly hints at a wider problem facing Lansley and the Department of Health. In the short term, cosying up to industry during these times of austerity might seem a smart and pragmatic thing to do. In the longer run, however, the DoH cannot afford to alienate its core constituency, the medical profession.

As one industry insider put it: “The health lobby is now screaming from the sidelines with placards on its chest. That doesn’t serve the public health interest; and it doesn’t serve ours, either. To paraphrase President Johnson, we’d rather have them inside the tent than outside it.”


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