Still waiting for information (nudge, nudge)

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.

Nudge up

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.

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