First tea leaves, now Tee leaves

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.

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