Keep Calm. But there’s no more carrying on
Today sees the completion of a process started a little under a year ago by a ministerial decision issued by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude: the closure of the Central Office of Information (COI).
Although it’s been a good long while now since I last worked at COI, I still can’t help but feel very close to the place and to the people that I was privileged to work with during my 11 years there. Despite having been one of the earliest to jump rather than wait around and be pushed, it’s still hurt to watch from afar the slow decline of the place over the interim 18 months. It’s rather like watching a loved relation be gripped by a terminal illness and whither and die before your eyes. The fact of today’s inevitability hasn’t made watching it come about any the easier.
One of the hardest things to bear with a loved one suffering from terminal cancer, Alzheimers or any such dreadful affliction is the sense of not having anyone to blame for the suffering and pain that’s being caused. In the case of COI, there is a clear and direct line of responsibility and someone to be very angry at; but the truth is that when it comes to the final day and as the life support machines are clicked off, it’s no help and makes no difference. Dead is dead.
I knew nothing about COI before I started to freelance there in April 1999. It was quite eye-opening to find out how much of their work I did actually know and which had been weaved through my childhood: everything from the Charley Says child safety films to the AIDS awareness campaign, the Green Cross Code Man and the horrifying (to a child!) “death by the river” public information film. I felt honoured to work at COI given its heritage, and especially knowing that all our marketing and communications efforts were all about one thing – making people’s lives better and safer – rather than just trying to flog another packet of soap powder to a family that really didn’t need it.
The decision to close COI down was made in the middle of 2011. After review upon review of COI, its role, functions and structure, and of public communications strategy in general – all of which had envisioned and recommended an ongoing role for COI or for a successor body created by its reform – the minister capriciously decided to have none of that and instead swept away 66 years of history and proven accomplishments at a stroke. It was a decision that made little impact outside of those working at COI personally affected by the decision and by the public and private sectors in the communications industry that already worked with COI. The broader public heard little and cared less, but they should have been paying more attention – because I can’t help but theorise that there is a direct line to be drawn between that moment and the current unravelling political situation in the UK.
The day that the government opted to shut down COI against advice, evidence and formal report recommendations was the day that the Coalition first openly tipped its hand as to how things would go: to me it said, clearly and baldly, that this was a government that preferred to put the settling of a 15-year-old ideological score and unfinished business ahead of the principles of modern good government. Since that day we have seen it become a pattern: in how the government has similarly ignored advice, reports and expert recommendations over the NHS for example, because it wants to take care of more unfinished business from the Thatcher/Major years. Or how it’s using the cover of austerity to drive through the ideological measures it wants to see in the Budget, seemingly indifferent to advice from all sides about the impact this will have on families and businesses across the country.
There’s a fine dramatic irony that the final closure of COI comes in the week that the minister involved, Francis Maude, finds himself entangled in the mess of a row about advice he gave to the nation over a possible fuel shortage next week, telling motorists to fill up jerry cans and thereby sparking the very fuel panic he was supposed to be averting. Since I don’t believe that Maude is remotely so spectacularly stupid as to have made such a Horlicks of it by accident, I can only think that stoking up the panic is an intentional tactic on the government’s part: that they are using the strategy of stirring up a crisis in order to turn public opinion and to blame the tanker drivers’ union for what then ensues. In other words, you could say that they’re once again putting their ideological battles ahead of the principles and responsibilities of good government for the nation as a whole.
The whole fuel crisis/jerry can fiasco (along with a number of other spectacular own goals in recent weeks such as pastygate) could have been averted if only the government just had some sort of experienced body or agency to hand that could act as a centre of communications and marketing excellence and expertise to which it could turn to for advice on the proper way of handling such situations. A sort of central office of public information, that sort of thing. Such an agency might even have come up with a slogan that could have been used to help set the right tone. “Keep Calm And Carry On.” Catchy, right?
It’s just such a crying shame there’s never a COI around when you need one, and that you never appreciate the things you have until you’ve dismantled them and lost them to the annals of history.
Farewell and my deepest respects to COI, 1946-2012. And to all the fine people I knew and had the good fortune of working with while there: I hope you go on to even better and bigger things in the future and that you carry your own little bit of COI’s DNA of quality forward in all that you – all that we – do from here on.