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).

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