Posts Tagged ‘matt tee’
The headlines are already trumpeting the end of the Central Office of Information after the publication today of the long awaited review of government direct communication and the role of COI, written by Matt Tee, the outgoing Permanent Secretary for Government Communication.
Pretty unequivocal then, right? COI is gone, dead, kaput, and a big black cloud of depression hangs over the heads of everyone who works there today. Well … No, it’s never quite as simple as that. And the clue lies in the headlines with the foresight to use “replaced” in the title.
The report is actually recommending that a Government Communication Centre (GCC) be set up as a Crown Corporate Service within the Cabinet Office, comprised of a core staff of 150 housed at a location to be decided according to greatest cost efficiency, with a “pay as you go” staff of around 250 working on direct communications projects (campaigns to you and me) on a fee basis – which is the model that COI has already been operating on for a couple of decades now. That makes a total of 400 staff, which is only a little less than COI as it stands today (450) after last year’s 40% redundancies.
The rest of the proposed GCC’s work would be carried out via “theme teams”: the exact composition of the themes are not defined in the review but examples given include “Britain in the World” and a real life example from Scotland. COI already operates ‘themes’ in many parts of its operation and Tee seems to have picked up this idea and run with it: doubtless the new implementation will be more specific and sharply defined than the ‘catch-all’ themes COI has been working with till now, but the idea remains the same. Staffing here would be six teams of about 80 people – 480 in total – that would be “employed by” [sic] the Government Communications Network (GCN) and based at the host departments, which would be the people left over from the trimming down and culling of communications staff throughout Whitehall; COI staff numbers, having already gone through 40% cuts, would expect to get away relatively lightly this time although there will undoubtedly be some new layoffs to endure.
COI’s traditional role of procurement seems to be surviving: “benefits of aggregated central procurement for marketing and communication services are clear and quantifiable” says the review, which also confirms that the controversial “payment by results” be introduced. As expected, the US Ad Council model is booted out in short order, Tee concluding “It would not be workable, nor desirable, to attempt to wholly replicate the Ad Council in the UK” – although two paragraphs on the review then suggests “forming a Common Good Communication Council, separate from but supported by government” which has a hint of the review being forced to include this lifeline to the idea despite its previously stated main finding. One feels that this venture will be spun off and allowed to fail, discrediting the idea without dragging down the main GCC itself.
My own area of digital is covered in the report, with a commendable and long-overdue recommendation that “digital considerations should be built into all communication activity from the start” – something that has been fought for over a decade. Otherwise though the report seems to back off from too much discussion on digital, perhaps wary of stepping on the toes of Martha Lane Fox whose own Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution not evolution report last year has now born fruit with the announcement of the Government Digital Service which will merge Directgov with the Cabinet Office Digital Delivery and Digital Engagement teams, to be “the centre for digital government in the UK, building and championing a ‘digital culture’ that puts the user first and delivers the best, low cost public services possible.” Presumably the GDS’s focus is on citizen experience online, while GCC will retain COI’s existing role for direct digital communications (campaigns), but there may be more tweaks to come there in terms of who gets what territory. For example, GDS might want to take ownership of the COI Digigov team led by Dr David Pullinger, which has produced guidelines on everything from accessibility to SEO and browser testing. [Full disclosure: I authored the guidelines on Service Availability for the Digigov team while at COI.]
The rumours that COI could be morphed into a central comms team for all of government – that I firmly blogged against last month – have happily proved to be far off the mark. Indeed, the structure suggested by Tee of having departmentally-based theme teams and only a core GCC presence is very much driven by the sort of concerns I was raising in that post, with Tee clearly differentiating between the necessary in-house media/comms teams (which stay) and the digital communications teams required for campaigns (which would move to departmentally-located GCC theme teams), so Tee has carefully seen and avoided the pitfalls that I feared. In fact this is a very assured, well-thought-out, well-informed review as a whole and the work of someone who knows his stuff and who has been listening to the right people. Those are rare traits in government, and makes Tee’s imminent exit from Whitehall all the more lamentable, although his resorting to the term ‘exited’ referring to the people whose careers his recommendations are terminating is a lamentable cold-blooded lapse.
The review even tackles head on the question of whether or not to simply continue calling the new body ‘COI’ after all. Tee decides not, and actually makes a strong point about why a new name is needed: “I have concluded that, because what I am proposing in this review is a sufficient change in the way that government approaches direct communication, retaining the brand would suggest a greater continuity with the recent past than I think is helpful. I have therefore concluded that on establishment of the GCC, the COI brand should cease to be used.”
In other words – we could just call it COI, but we’re not going to (for good reasons.) But isn’t that quite a different matter from “scrapping” or “axing” COI? Repositioning, reorienting, renaming, rebranding, refocussing perhaps – but it sounds much more like a relaunch, not a termination notice. It’s sad to see a 65-year-old corporate history dispensed with at a stroke of the pen, but it’s hard to argue against the idea that COI is increasingly hostage to that legacy. Indeed, I’ve blogged several times that I thought COI would continue in some form but most likely with a new name, and this seems to be exactly that scenario after all. I admit I had a wobble in my confidence about COI’s survival after last week’s announcement of Mark Lund’s unexpected resignation as COI CEO, but now the review has been published this is looking rather brighter for all concerned.
However, the biggest thing to keep in mind at this point is that this is a review by a senior civil servant, and not yet a government decision. Nothing is set, nothing is decided until Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, makes his response and his choices known. Of course it would be strange for a review to get to this stage without broadly being in line with what the minister wants to do, but you never can tell and it’s best not to count your seats until the votes are all in. For now, all Maude says is: “I am grateful to Matt for the work that has gone into this report. I will discuss the recommendations with ministerial colleagues and the government will publish a full response in due course.”
At the risk of flogging a subject that is dear to my heart but maybe not to those of everyone who reads this blog, I’ll undoubtedly return to the subject of the review in the coming days and weeks as I digest it some more and have time to think about its deeper implications, and as Maude’s response and more developments are announced. For the time being, this is very much an “off the back foot” impression based on a very quick read of the report, but it’s the best I can do on the day right now.
My own view on this is that it could still go pretty much any direction, depending on what changes are picked up, which recommendations are adopted and how they are introduced and implemented. Nothing is yet set in stone, everything is still in flux and uncertain – although at least a large chunk of the ‘known unknowns’ is now out in the daylight for us to cogitate over.
So keep on watching this space for the next chapter.
Back in November we heard that there was going to be a two-month review of government communications, inevitably chiefly revolving around the role of my old employer the Central Office of Information (COI). It was to be conducted by Matt Tees, the outgoing permanent secretary of government communications who leaves his post at the end of March, so clearly the review absolutely could not be allowed to slip.
Naturally the review has slipped.
Concluding the review in January and reporting in February was always an aggressive timetable. There’s something about the dazzle of an impending Christmas that seems to blind people to the fact that the whole month around December 25 will be pretty much a write-off because of everyone being on holiday for large stretches of that time. And that was even before the big Snow Shutdown hit in the weeks beforehand. But a few stories have started popping up in the trade press that suggest the report is now being drafted and is about to be presented next week to the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, who is in overall charge of the review and of COI. That would give them a chance of amending the report and getting it out by mid-March before Tees goes into leaving party mode and gets the heck out of Dodge, leaving others like COI chief executive Mark Lund holding the smoking gun.
Some of the big ‘new ideas’ for government communications going into the review – such as converting COI into a body analogous to the United States’ Ad Council – seem to have have withered on the vine since they first made headlines. No one in the ad industry likes the Ad Council idea (who would, since the model basically asks them all to work for free? – how very Big Society) and everyone else is merely completely sceptical about whether it could ever work. Other faded ideas include running government ads for free on the BBC (something that managed to go down like a lead balloon with both the BBC and with the independent broadcasters), and running government ads online on existing government websites (to which the general response seems to be “you mean they’re not already? Why ever not?” mixed with a shrug that it’s not going to make much of a difference anyway.)
Some reports still seem astonished that the COI is not to be abolished altogether, exclaiming “COI may be reprieved after all in Francis Maude’s overhaul“. As far as I know, there’s never been any actual official suggestion that it even might be abolished – although that didn’t stop COI staff worriedly scanning the list of government agencies to be abolished last September, just in case COI hadn’t been accidentally thrown out onto the bonfire of the quangos by mistake. Instead, the focus has been on where a reformed, reshaped and probably renamed COI will fit into the government communications ecosphere. (I’m thinking of setting up my first ever WordPress poll, on new names for the COI – in the meantime, suggestions welcome via the comment box!)
One comms team to rule them all
But the new emerging idea – and hence one that may reasonably be thought to have leaked from early drafts of the Tees report – is that individual government marketing departments should be shut down and any retained staff moved to a radically smaller centralised unit, which of the sake of convenience we’ll call … oh, ‘COI’ for the moment. If true, it would constitute a remarkable bounceback for the government’s “centre of excellence in marketing communications”: to recover from a near-death experience to become the only marcomms game in town.
Whitehall has always been about territory, and marking about yours ferociously, so it’s no surprise that the bigger government departments with the largest comms teams like the Department of Health and the Department for Business opposed to the idea, while smaller government bodies – for whom comms team have all too often been a draining overhead of disproportionate size to the rest of the agency that might only be a couple of dozen people in its entirety – are cheerfully in favour.
Let me be clear in my view of this: I genuinely don’t think that will work, and here’s why. Government is all about access – being able to get hold of the right people at the right time, of knowing them and the organisation inside out so that you can pick up on the nuances, predict what’s needed, be there to deliver it in a completely bespoke, customised fashion the moment it’s required. You can’t do that if you’re not located in the department itself, let alone if that department is just one of a portfolio of clients that you’re suspected to service. You may be able to do an adequate service that will be sufficient for some of those smaller organisations who never really wanted a comms team in the first place, but you’ll never satisfy clients like the Home Office or the Department for Transport who will immediately gripe about the central marketing department not understanding it, not jumping high enough or fast enough, of getting the nuances wrong, of not being “part of the team”. In many ways that’s exactly the sort of gripe departments had about the old COI, which could make relationships between COI and its clients occasionally fraught and fractious – and that was just in the area of advertising services that departments felt could be reasonably outsourced. It led to suggestions that one of COI’s problems was that it was geographically too far removed from Whitehall to be really effective; because it was in the far-off hinterlands of the south bank of the Thames across from Parliament. A full half a mile away, if that.
If it’s tried, then this “Central Office of Communications” (although the acronym, COC, perhaps needs work …) will only end up with departments feeling the need to reinvent marketing and communications roles back at headquarters – under some new job name no doubt so as not to be obvious about it, but it will happen because departments will quickly find an arms-length PR/marketing/press operation unworkable. From what I’ve heard, departments where the comms team found itself in a different building from the ministers ended up quitting out of frustration and the comms accordingly stuttered to a halt. So the net result will be a central team of marketing folk competing with/overlapping/duplicating with local teams suddenly springing up again. It will be the usual sort of public sector mess and a costly one at that.
In the run-up to whatever is decided, the bigger government departments are already reviewing their communications staffing and many are undertaking a “reapply for your own job” review, a particularly loathsome modern HR practice. COI itself avoided that last year when forced to cut staff by 40% and was able to rely on largely voluntary redundancies, but if the whole purpose of the organisation it to be totally overhauled rather than just slimmed down, and if in addition it will be the new home of staff migrated from elsewhere who have been through the “reapplying” process, then the worry has to be that the remaining staff at COI will soon be forced through this vile dance-for-your-supper spectacle as well.
In the meantime, there was an interesting admission last week from one of Maude’s ministerial team, Oliver Letwin, about the Government’s “nudge unit” or Behavioural Insight Team. The unit is expected to cost around half a million pounds, and is based on the work of Chicago professor Richard Thaler as detailed in his book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness and which fundamentally challenges the wisdom of using top-down ‘broadcast’ methods of trying to coax people into behaviour change on issues such as knife crime, obesity and alcohol consumption. The theories have been around for a while now, and COI has certainly been looking at them and exploring how or if they could be used for government communications for a couple of years.
Letwin admitted to a Lords’ committee that the unit was an experiment and may simply not work or deliver any results. It’s a commendably frank admission, and a correct one: it’s a new theory, no one has tried it on the scale of national government communications, and it may well collapse under its own hubris. But on the other hand it may be just the sort of breakthrough to get UK society to move beyond the relative stalemate that has begun to develop as citizens tune out the old ways that government has been trying to communicate with them, and at much a lower cost as well.
Yes, it’s a risk: that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be at least tried. The government’s cautious “toe in the water” approach to trying it shouldn’t be sneered at just because it’s new. I may be biased: I originally joined COI as a web developer in 1999, and we went through a prolonged period of sniping from the press and politicians about how public money was being wasted on advertising via niche channels that were worthless and only used by a handful of computer geeks. Fast-forward ten years, and now digital communications isn’t just accepted, it’s being hailed as the saviour of government marketing and the only way to go.
That new enthusiasm for the online medium worries me, in the sense of the pendulum having swung too far to the other extreme: digital isn’t and can’t be a miracle cure, but instead is a vital part of an overall communications mix. What worries me most of all about the current Tees review is that it might end up advocating hacking off some vital limbs from the government communications machine and leave it seriously crippled or even lying there bleeding to death, unable to deliver that required mix.
Let’s hope Tees has more nous than to allow that as his farewell gift to the sector.
I was surprised to read this week in Campaign that COI’s Deputy Chief Executive, Peter Buchanan, is to retire at the end of the month after 16 years with the Central Office of Information.
I’m very sad to see Peter go. He was there when I started at the organisation, and still there when I left; he played deputy to at least three COI Chief Executives, and was acting as interim Chief Exec between Carol Fisher and Alan Bishop when he signed my one and only ABCD award from the company (that’s an in-house certificate for services ‘Above and Beyond the Call of Duty’, as I believe the acronym originally stood for). He introduced the system for benchmarking prices against recognized industry averages and most recently has been heading the payment-by-results review that he will reportedly conclude before leaving (making it a rather rapid review in the end – who says the Civil Service is slow?) He’s one of those steady, safe pairs of hands that it’s all too easy to take for granted and to under-appreciate, but whose contribution to the place is quietly invaluable.
I have no reason to think that his departure is anything other than a personal decision to retire after a very long stretch at one company, although perhaps it’s not surprising after the bruising and traumatic year 2010′s been for government communications in general and COI in particular that he wants to put his feet up at last. But that won’t stop it being grist to the mill for the doomsayers who are convinced that the end is nigh for COI, that it’s in “a state of meltdown” and that “staff are leaving in droves.”
Those quotes are from an opinion piece in the Guardian Public that particularly irked me because it seemed to take such particular delight in opining that “the COI is at death’s door” and describing the forthcoming Matt Tee-led review of COI’s role as possibly being “a polite form of death notice” adding that COI “could be cut by next Easter.” I said in my previous post why I thought this was actually less rather than more likely after the announcement of the review, and as for being “at death’s door”, in fact it seems that COI is pretty busy these days with plenty of work to occupy the now-trimmed-down staff. I’m now rather optimistic that things seem to be picking up and that new ideas and directions in government communication are starting to sprout again.
Anyway, I’d be more prone to giving weight to the article if it had got the most basic fact right. It starts off with “Announcing his departure from the Central Office of Information (COI), Matt Tee last week …” – the only problem with that is that Tee does not work at or for COI. He’s a permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, and it even says this in the press release from the Cabinet Office about the COI review and Tee’s departure. So let’s hold off on running around issuing death notices and scaring the hell out of people trying to earn a living until we get the facts straight, shall we?
Given the title of my previous blog post (“Reading the tea-leaves of government communications“) the sub-editor in me could hardly have asked for a better follow-up headline punning opportunity than the news that the Permanent Secretary Government Communications, Matt Tee, is the latest to join the list of those departing the field of play. It’s almost as though I knew this was coming when I wrote that earlier headline (full disclosure: I didn’t.)
The latest shoe dropped on Friday afternoon. (I’d say “the other shoe” except that there’s likely to be enough further footwear dropping out of the sky as this story develops to give Imelda Marcos’ closet a decent run for its money over the coming weeks and months.) The news about Tee himself was somewhat buried in the fourth paragraph of a press release about a review into the Central Office of Information (COI), which will be Tee’s last major project before he leaves in March and more of which in a moment.
While other departures can be put down to “been here for ages, it’s time to move on, my work here is done”, there’s little such cover for Matt Tee’s decision considering that he’s only been in post since Spring 2009, and so the letter sent by Tee to members of the Government Communications Network (GCN) gives the reason as:
‘The work to reconfigure parts of Government communication, including COI, and to make very significant savings in departmental communications will be very challenging. I recognise that it will be difficult to justify a Permanent Secretary role as head of a smaller communications profession and I am going to seek fresh challenges after overseeing the review of COI and the transition for Government communications.’
That rather paints the picture that come next March there’s going to be so little left of the government communications scene that it no longer warrants senior representation, which will send alarm through departmental press and web teams up and down the land – and presumably also paints a very big question mark over the future of GCN itself as well since if the sector can’t justify a senior representative then it surely can’t justify a leaderless professional network. That’s just when the transition of comms to digital-centric thinking is in need of a strong network to help form a “strong cadre of mutually supportive, mutually respectful, Internet practitioners *across* departments” as called for by Tom Loosemore in a comment made on Steph Gray’s blog last week.
Considering Tee is an experienced and nuanced communicator, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when I read his tweet confirming the departure: “Leaving Cabinet Office at end March to find meaningful endeavour.” To my ear that sounds rather melancholy, the sign of someone who has been frustrated and not been allowed to achieve anything and now finds himself squeezed out. Not that he’ll want for a good position out in the wide world of private sector, though, I’m sure.
With so many people departing the scene of senior government communications and in particular digital/IT communications (“Mark Flanagan, Jayne Nickalls, John Suffolk, Alex Butler, Andrew Stott… now Matt Tee” as Simon Dickson summarises recent developments at the start of his own blog update on the story) you have to wonder who is left, how long that any of them will last, and what they will do in the meantime.
We’d hoped for some clarity about the future of COI and government communications this month, but when the Directgov review was published last week only for the government to take a rather non-committal response to it, we should have known that there were going to be further delays in anything definitive being decided. The news that COI faces a new two-month review that will not report back until January confirms this.
I’ll admit, when I read the Cabinet Office press release, my immediate thought was that it boded very ill indeed for Mark Lund, who arrived as chief executive of COI just three months after Tee was installed as Permanent Secretary in 2009 (Tee is effectively the direct boss of COI within the Cabinet Office.) With Tee going, Lund looks very exposed and isolated, stripped of most of his former support network; and added to that, there’s another whole new review of his organisation to endure.
Lund had already had to lead one review when he first arrived (dubbed “One COI” and rolled out to clients at the start of the financial year) and then a second “size and shape” review forced upon him because of the round of 40% redundancies that has just been completed. And after having done two reviews and reorganisations, the Cabinet Office turns around and orders a third. Not exactly a rousing endorsement.
It’s very hard for anyone, even someone as skilled as Lund, to sell three reorganisations of a company within the space of 12 months. The credibility simply wears thin (“Why should we believe it this time? If you can’t get it right the first or even the second time?”) and arguably is better undertaken by a completely fresh face at the helm. But with every threat comes opportunity: maybe Mark Lund has made new allies within the Cabinet Office, maybe he’ll be in a position to help guide the latest review and help it put COI back on its feet and undo the harm the last year of uncertainty has inflicted on the department and restore it to the very heart of government communications once again.
Of course the trade press are headlining their stories about this latest Tee-led review of COI as “COI still under threat of closure”, taking the view that any review is a mortal threat to the government’s centre of communications expertise. Well, yes, a review could arrive at that decision; but it could just as equally decide to vastly raise COI’s power and influence. I’m not saying it will, just that a review could just as easily swing to that extreme as to the other.
For what it’s worth, I personally think the debate about the future of COI has turned a corner: COI will now survive, in some shape or form at least. My slender evidence for this is that Tee’s GCN letter talks about how with recent developments “these foundations begin to define a new role for COI,” which encourages me because it starts from the assumption that there is a role for COI going forward. From the rest of the press release, it looks like that role is looking more like an evaluation, standards enforcement and go/no-go authoriser of communications activity in the style of the Efficiency and Reform Group, rather than COI’s old procurement and project management business model – and that’s probably no bad thing.
My other bit of evidence for thinking the decision to retain COI has been made is that it is actually very easy to shut something down – just announce it’s closing and it’s done (c.f. the Audit Commission, Becta and others that were felled without pre-amble earlier this year.) COI, by contrast, has been put through a lengthy, painful and doubtless expensive redundancy exercise and is now to be reviewed again – you don’t need all that messing around just to decide to shut something down, but you do if you’re going to reconfigure it and the whole communications ecosphere in which it operates. That’s tricky and intricate work.
So that’s my guess – COI will continue, although it might be re-titled ‘GCN’ or something similar along the way because, let’s face it, the “Central Office of Information” name is a really odd anachronism from the 1940s that does not accurately convey what the organisation does. If he’s been particularly politically savvy, then Mark Lund may not just survive but may even double up with the de facto role of head of the government communications post-Tee (his predecessor, Alan Bishop, briefly ‘acted up’ in such a dual role in the interregnum between Howell James’s departure and Matt Tee’s appointment.)
However it’s a zero sum game we’re playing here, a see-saw balance between central (COI) comms and departmental teams. If COI is retained and recast, then it will be at the expense of shrinking the individual departmental/NDPB communications activity, otherwise why would Matt Tee be leaving amid talk of a much “smaller communications profession”? Conversely, if COI were to be abolished then the departmental teams would need to be bigger. But that latter approach seems fragmented and overlapping, and not at all the sort of direction that the Coalition government has been going in the last nine months.
In summary, the Tee leaves this week point to the chill wind that has buffeted COI in the past year moving on to wreak similar change on the rest of government departments’ communications teams in 2011. In the meantime, the review’s delivery date of end of January means everyone in government communications will be doing their utmost to forget all about this as they’re singing “Auld Lang Syne” and uncertainly greeting the New Year.