And it’s goodnight from him …

This afternoon we learned that our chief executive, Alan Bishop, is to leave his job at the Central Office of Information.

Alan’s been in post for about six years, having come from being a former chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi to succeed the previous incumbent, Carol Fisher, in 2002. In COI years that’s quite an impressive long stint in the role, and he’s certainly made his mark on the place and reshaped it considerably, bringing us in line with modern government thinking of how the civil service should be run, and how it should deliver cost effective, top quality services. (I make no apologies if I sound like a corporate PR hack writing this part of the post – I have a very high regard for my colleagues at COI and all that we have all achieved in the last few years, and not embarrassed to say it.)

Considering how successful Alan’s been in the media business, Alan is also one of those people who comes over as simply a genuine – and genuinely nice – guy. My first memory of him was a day or two into the job when he went around to introduce himself and shake the hand of everyone working for him: I was busy with something on screen at the time and didn’t notice him immediately, so he stood waiting patiently for a convenient moment. You wouldn’t get that from many chief execs: certainly in Carol Fisher we had someone who was more a force of nature, someone whose presence you felt approaching minutes before their actual arrival and who had people running for cover if something was wrong.

Alan has been calmer, a steady hand on the tiller whose low-key approach has proved far more effective and successful at achieving the objectives than the usual sturm und drang you get in the media business. He’s been an effective ambassador for COI and made a lot of friends both inside and outside government.

If you’re looking to this article as the insider’s knowledge of “what the real story is behind Alan’s departure” I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you. For one thing, I’m bound by the usual civil service codes (see the site disclaimer for the details), but in this case I really know no more than is appearing in the trade press reports of the story. The news broke in an email across COI shortly after midday, and by all accounts even the senior management board were only told this morning at their regular meeting a half hour or so before the email went out.

Admittedly the email was a tad rushed because the story had already gone out via The Stage website. Why The Stage of all places? It’s because Alan is leaving to become chief executive of London’s Southbank Centre – a very impressive next post for him indeed. Too good to pass up for sure, but I believe what I’ve read and heard about how genuinely sad he is to be leaving COI.

(You can also read trade and press coverage on the websites of the Media Guardian, Marketing Week, Brand Republic and London SE1 community website, and the press release on the London Southbank Centre site.)

It all leaves UK government communications at a rather strange crossroads, because Alan – apart from being Chief Executive of COI – has also been filling in as Permanent Secretary, Government Communications since Howell James left the post back in June 2008. Recruitment for that position should be pretty much complete in the next month or two and so there is no sense of the two vacancies being linked, and there’s no word as yet on who it will be. Whoever it is will then be playing a pivotal role in the appointment off a new Chief Executive of COI – a rather big first item on the new person’s to-do list, really, given that COI is one of the UK’s largest and most influential advertisers.

But try as I might to find out more, there really doesn’t seem to be any conspiracy theory to unearth here about the timing of Alan’s announcement. Alan’s going because the role he’s been offered at the Southbank Centre is a fabulous opportunity and a new challenge after six years at COI, not because of any backstage politics. No one actually wants him to bow out, least of all Alan himself, it’s just that this seems the right time for him personally to make a move.

Considering all the high drama usually associated with government comings and goings these days, the really striking thing about Alan’s departure is that there is no drama. It is what it is. He’s leaving in the same effective low-key style that he arrived, and which has served him – and COI – so well in the years in between.

We can’t even get him to believe that people might be interested enough in the news to warrant a press release on the COI website.


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