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.

Chris Wood appointed chairman of COI

April 7, 2011

Things are moving with unaccustomed and electrifying speed at the COI. Chris Wood, the senior of two non-executive directors, has effectively taken over the tiller from CEO Mark Lund, who is stepping down some 5 weeks before he was expected to.

The catalyst behind this accelerated transition is Waitrose, as in the £25m advertising account. Although Lund had signalled a return to the private sector, the rapidity of the Waitrose win by his new agency Now took everyone by surprise. And made Lund’s continuation at the COI untenable. Hence his leaving party last night.

Technically, Wood is to be acting chairman. Two civil servants will be joint chief executives. Emma Lochhead, whose importance I flagged in an earlier post, is HR Director at COI/Cabinet Office (Government Communications); and Graham Hooper is head of client service and strategy. In other words, of the trio only Wood is a marketing professional with “outward facing” experience of the private sector. In recent times, every head of the COI has been recruited from the private sector.

The restructure is clearly an interim arrangement. It takes place against the backdrop of the Tee Report, drawn up by senior civil servant Matt Tee, recommending radical streamlining of the COI’s role and headcount. Tee’s recommendations are, for the most part, likely to be implemented but they need to be sanctioned by a public expenditure committee (PEX), which will not happen before June.

I understand that, once the formalities are out of the way, Wood’s role – which would appear to be executive chairman – may become permanent. As it happens Wood, who is a well-known figure in marketing services circles, has just stepped down from being chairman of branding, strategy and design consultancy Corporate Edge (now a subsidiary of Photon), which he has led since 1997. Earlier in his career he was CEO of innovation consultancy Craton Lodge & Knight, which eventually floated on the London Stock Exchange. Subsequently (1990-97) he was a senior executive at Princedale plc, another quoted marketing services company. He bought out Corporate Edge from Princedale in 1997.

Wood is now believed to be pursuing a portfolio career, and has business interests outside marketing services (such as a gastro pub in Wiltshire). He is known to be seeking non-executive positions.

It may be of considerable significance that the COI has appointed another senior civil servant, Ian Watmore, as accounting officer. Normally, the role of accounting officer – who is directly responsible to parliament for the COI’s activities – is wrapped up with that of COI chief executive. This was certainly the case with Lund and his predecessor, Alan Bishop.

Wanted: CMO of government to head son of COI

March 18, 2011

The COI is dead; long live the Government Communication Centre. That is the distilled recommendation from senior mandarin Matt Tee in his snappily titled ‘Review of Government Direct Communication and the Role of COI’, just published.

It may be a recommendation, and Tee himself may be about to depart for pastures new, but we can rest assured that his word has the force of writ. It’s all over for the COI, bar the quibbling. The rupture with past traditions going back to 1946 is so fundamental that only a rebrand, in Tee’s considered opinion, will do it justice.

So what exactly are the implications of Tee’s vision? The first is that the GCC will be smaller in size and scale of ambition than its predecessor. When fully set up in around 18 months’ time, it will have a staff of about 150, as opposed to the current complement of 450 (after 40% cuts). It will be more strategic and more confined in its role, but this should not necessarily be interpreted as “less powerful”. On the contrary, Tee intends to strip power not from the centre, but from communications divisions within separate departments of state (or feuding baronies, as they are sometimes known). Part of this realignment is driven by a pledge (frankly avowed) to bring down the deficit: so expect plenty more redundancies in various communications departments in the coming months. But the over-arching idea is a better, joined-up, communications programme, more economically expressed, which will rid government of substantial duplication in the way it puts out messages. In other words, the programme will be theme-led rather than departmentally-led. And the messages will be “brigaded” around the GCC, which will act as ringmaster rather than as a trading centre.

What’s interesting is just how few of these master “themes” there will be: six in all. Even if this figure is more arbitrary than it appears (why not five, or nine?) it signifies a massive compression of the existing direct communication service – not to mention a great deal more command and control from the centre. Indeed, Tee makes it crystal clear that less will mean more: more effectiveness “through better evaluation and insight”; and relentless focus “on value for money and return on marketing investment”. The thinking is that, by 2013 at the latest, all existing departmental communications executives (excluding press and internal comms) will be pooled into something called the Government Communication Network (GCN), which in turn will pour nearly 500 into the 6 theme teams and a further 150 into GCC. The remainder (estimated at about 1300 personnel) are likely to find themselves surplus to requirements.

Superficially, all this looks unpromising for the marketing services community, for whom COI spend was long a gravy train. There has been an increasingly bleak assumption across the industry that government would attempt to saddle the private sector (agencies and brand owners) with a growing burden, under the guise of pro bono collaboration, in place of the healthy income stream to which agencies, at any rate, have hitherto been accustomed.

In fact, Tee has been highly pragmatic about the role of paid-for communication. For one thing, he has junked the hated US Ad Council concept, touted late last year. Had this prevailed, ad agencies and media owners would have been expected to contribute their wares free of charge: Tee reckons this is simply “not workable, nor desirable”. Instead, communication will be divided into a tripartite framework: pro bono; collaborative; and fully paid-for. In place of the Ad Council is a boiled-down Common Good Communication Council, “facilitated” (and presumably financially underwritten in some way) by government, dealing with such public information topics as “literacy” or “road safety”. Then, a stage up: partnerships with like-minded commercial and civic organisations (Green issues and obesity are cited; business4life comes to mind). And finally, and wholly financed by taxpayers’ money, government-only issues, such as recruitment to the armed forces or taxation.

Similarly, paid-for media will survive, although buyers and planners now have to demonstrate good reason for elbowing aside placement on government-owned assets (websites; poster sites on government buildings; Directgov etc), which the report estimates to be worth £50m a year in media value.

There’s even some unequivocally good news, for those – at least – involved in digital communications: Tee thinks the government doesn’t do enough of it.  “My conclusion is that government should make greater use of digital channels in direct communication and that digital considerations should be built into all communication activity from the start,” he says.

Last but not least, now that COI ceo Mark Lund has decided to move on, who will be running the new organisation and how much power will he or she wield?

Despite the anticipated shrinkage in budget, the new executive director (ceo) will in some ways be more powerful than any COI predecessor. Not only will the GCC act as an “intelligent gateway”, with a veto on all government marketing and advertising spend over £100,000, its chief executive will also be closer to the heart of government. The ceo will sit on a cabinet sub-committee, chaired by the minister for the cabinet office (currently Francis Maude) and will also be charged with producing a marketing strategy for government at the beginning of each parliament.

An insider tells me: “What we’re talking about here is a CMO for government. Who could fill the role? Well, the brief is going to require very careful construction. The job won’t automatically go to an agency or business person. Obviously, sophisticated political skills are required. But the centre of gravity should lie in marketing. Experience of large and complex marketing operations is the vital pre-requisite. And it’s clear you’re not going to get those kind of skills in the public sector, are you?”

Along with a new executive director, the government will also be recruiting a Government Oversight Panel consisting of “three people who have experience of and high credibility in the communications industry”. Their job will be to ensure GCC head remains up to snuff. It’s not dissimilar to the current COI non-exec role. So I would not be surprised to find the two present incumbents, Chris Wood chairman of Corporate Edge, and Simon Marquis, filling two of the seats. They would offer sensible continuity at a time of radical change. But who will be the third?

PS. Tee’s official title, Permanent Secretary for Government Communications at the Cabinet Office, will be abolished when he leaves this month. The COI/GCC project will thereafter be overseen by Emma Lochhead, HR Director at COI/Cabinet Office (Government Communications).

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

February 1, 2011

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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