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.

COI to be replaced” … “axe COI” … “COI review recommends abolition” … “Government set to scrap COI” … “Plans to scrap the COI” … “COI to be replaced“.

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.

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