Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Today sees the completion of a process started a little under a year ago by a ministerial decision issued by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude: the closure of the Central Office of Information (COI).

Although it’s been a good long while now since I last worked at COI, I still can’t help but feel very close to the place and to the people that I was privileged to work with during my 11 years there. Despite having been one of the earliest to jump rather than wait around and be pushed, it’s still hurt to watch from afar the slow decline of the place over the interim 18 months. It’s rather like watching a loved relation be gripped by a terminal illness and whither and die before your eyes. The fact of today’s inevitability hasn’t made watching it come about any the easier.

One of the hardest things to bear with a loved one suffering from terminal cancer, Alzheimers or any such dreadful affliction is the sense of not having anyone to blame for the suffering and pain that’s being caused. In the case of COI, there is a clear and direct line of responsibility and someone to be very angry at; but the truth is that when it comes to the final day and as the life support machines are clicked off, it’s no help and makes no difference. Dead is dead.

I knew nothing about COI before I started to freelance there in April 1999. It was quite eye-opening to find out how much of their work I did actually know and which had been weaved through my childhood: everything from the Charley Says child safety films to the AIDS awareness campaign, the Green Cross Code Man and the horrifying (to a child!) “death by the river” public information film. I felt honoured to work at COI given its heritage, and especially knowing that all our marketing and communications efforts were all about one thing – making people’s lives better and safer – rather than just trying to flog another packet of soap powder to a family that really didn’t need it.

The decision to close COI down was made in the middle of 2011. After review upon review of COI, its role, functions and structure, and of public communications strategy in general – all of which had envisioned and recommended an ongoing role for COI or for a successor body created by its reform – the minister capriciously decided to have none of that and instead swept away 66 years of history and proven accomplishments at a stroke. It was a decision that made little impact outside of those working at COI personally affected by the decision and by the public and private sectors in the communications industry that already worked with COI. The broader public heard little and cared less, but they should have been paying more attention – because I can’t help but theorise that there is a direct line to be drawn between that moment and the current unravelling political situation in the UK.

The day that the government opted to shut down COI against advice, evidence and formal report recommendations was the day that the Coalition first openly tipped its hand as to how things would go: to me it said, clearly and baldly, that this was a government that preferred to put the settling of a 15-year-old ideological score and unfinished business ahead of the principles of modern good government. Since that day we have seen it become a pattern: in how the government has similarly ignored advice, reports and expert recommendations over the NHS for example, because it wants to take care of more unfinished business from the Thatcher/Major years. Or how it’s using the cover of austerity to drive through the ideological measures it wants to see in the Budget, seemingly indifferent to advice from all sides about the impact this will have on families and businesses across the country.

There’s a fine dramatic irony that the final closure of COI comes in the week that the minister involved, Francis Maude, finds himself entangled in the mess of a row about advice he gave to the nation over a possible fuel shortage next week, telling motorists to fill up jerry cans and thereby sparking the very fuel panic he was supposed to be averting. Since I don’t believe that Maude is remotely so spectacularly stupid as to have made such a Horlicks of it by accident, I can only think that stoking up the panic is an intentional tactic on the government’s part: that they are using the strategy of stirring up a crisis in order to turn public opinion and to blame the tanker drivers’ union for what then ensues. In other words, you could say that they’re once again putting their ideological battles ahead of the principles and responsibilities of good government for the nation as a whole.

The whole fuel crisis/jerry can fiasco (along with a number of other spectacular own goals in recent weeks such as pastygate) could have been averted if only the government just had some sort of experienced body or agency to hand that could act as a centre of communications and marketing excellence and expertise to which it could turn to for advice on the proper way of handling such situations. A sort of central office of public information, that sort of thing. Such an agency might even have come up with a slogan that could have been used to help set the right tone. “Keep Calm And Carry On.” Catchy, right?

It’s just such a crying shame there’s never a COI around when you need one, and that you never appreciate the things you have until you’ve dismantled them and lost them to the annals of history.

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Farewell and my deepest respects to COI, 1946-2012. And to all the fine people I knew and had the good fortune of working with while there: I hope you go on to even better and bigger things in the future and that you carry your own little bit of COI’s DNA of quality forward in all that you – all that we – do from here on.

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It may have seemed strange that I never commented in this blog about the final decision to axe COI and not replace it with a ‘Government Communications Centre’ as had been recommended by the Tees Report. I’d followed the story of my former employers here, so why miss out on that final act?

Actually, I did write a blog piece about it. It’s on my hard disk somewhere, I’m sure I could find it if I looked. But I wisely held off posting it, because it was an incoherent outpouring of rage about the whole outcome that really would have done no one any good, least of all me. Better not to say anything at all until the blood had stopped boiling.

It mostly has now. Now I’m just in the ‘sadness and regret’ phase of grief, having moved through denial and anger and into acceptance.

It still amazes me that after at least half a dozen reviews and restructuring plans for COI, all of which agreed that COI was at heart still a valuable and useful body albeit one in need of considerable change and transformation to meet the needs of a 21st century government, that the powers that be should then abruptly set all those reports and recommendations aside and just close the whole thing down.

All I could think is that one of three things had happened: 1) that the decision was based on pure political ideology and was the plan all along, and the ministers were just annoyed when none of the reviews they commissioned came back with that recommendation in the meantime so that they had to do the deed themselves; 2) that the question of ‘what to do about COI?’ had simply dragged on too long and was now bogged down in so much haggling that the minister, Francis Maude, essentially decided: to hell with this, just get rid of it so I don’t have to take any more meetings about this irritation anymore; or 3) that once COI and the Tees Report lost its principle advocates (Matt Tee and ex-COI CEO Mark Lund) then it had no defenders from those who surged into the vacuum to hack it to death.

None of the three options speak well of the process of government, I fear. I’d understand it more if in coming to the decision they did, they at least had an idea of what they wanted instead: after all, it’s not like this hadn’t been thought about for over 12 months now, so it’s not exactly asking a lot for them to at least know what they would do once the decision to scrap COI and any possible successor bodies was made. But apparently it is asking too much of them because even all this time after the decision it seems no one has a clue how the shutdown of COI will be handled or where its functions are going.

In the meantime, the old COI is dying anyway. The staff who are its lifeblood are obviously and rightly looking to the future and starting to move on, as highlighted by yesterday’s news that my old boss at COI, Nick Jones, now has a foot in Number 10 as Head of Digital there. Bravo to Nick, and I wish him all the best – as I do to all those who are now enacting their exit strategies and getting the hell out of Dodge before it becomes a ghost town. I wish you all the best – and exciting, rewarding and fun new careers ahead of you. To Infinity and Beyond!

For myself, I’ll just have another moment of sadness and regret as I watch the passing into history of COI, the like of which we will never see again. Maybe it’s right that we don’t – maybe COI outlived its purpose a decade or two ago – but such thoughts are for another time and a different blog post.

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.

So, Mark Lund has resigned as Chief Executive of the Central Office of Information (COI).

On one hand it’s no surprise that he’s going – I’ve hinted at it in this very blog on several occasions since it was announced that there was going to be a government review of marketing and communications, and of COI’s role therein. A Chief Exec can get away with one major review and overhaul when he comes in; at a stretch, he can get away with a second six months later if the situation demands it. But three in 18 months? One’s credibility with the organisation rather crumbles, as does – I would imagine – one’s self-belief. There’s only so many times you can sell the “this time we have the right vision!” battle cry of Henry V to the troops without looking or feeling rather silly: either embarrassingly accident-prone or terminally inept. (In Lund’s case I genuinely feel it’s more a case that he’s been a hostage to fortune, with bigger things happening than he can do anything about personally.)

There are other reasons why it was inevitable he would go. For one thing, this is no longer the job he signed up to do or indeed was selected as the right person for. Back in 2009 COI was closely modelled along the advertising agency approach and so it made sense that someone who had been a success in that world (Lund was previously the Chief Exec of ad agency DLKW, the ‘L’ of which was even his initial) would make a good COI head. But now, whatever finally emerges from the forthcoming review of government communications that Lund is co-author of, it’s clear that COI will be a profoundly different sort of organisation going forward in 2011, and an ad man is probably not going to be the right fit. The job he’s been doing over the last two years – various emergency fire-fighting campaigns, restructuring, downsizing and making half the organisation redundant – is simply not what he signed up for and I can’t imagine that it’s been very enjoyable even for the type of personality who clearly loves a challenge.

Most of all, I suspect Lund’s just had enough of the layers of politics and bureaucracy and wants to get back to the simpler days of just going out there and “doing it”, hence the COI press release quoting him as saying “I can’t escape the fact that I am at heart someone who wants to run their own business more than anything else” as it confirms he is leaving to start a new venture in the private sector. Lund’s far too diplomatic to say anything antagonistic as he leaves, but that’s a pretty big signal that he’s had enough of this public sector rigmarole and wants back into the simpler life of cut-throat commercialism.

The press release goes on to say that “Work is now underway to recruit Mark’s successor” and “to ensure a smooth and successful transition” before Lund leaves at the end of May – a little over two and a half month’s time. But at this senior level, it’s hard to see how anyone will be recruited and in post this side of September: in both previous changes of COI executive there was a lengthy period where the Deputy CEO acted up in the post for anything up to six months. Unfortunately the person who was Deputy CEO on both those occasions – Peter Buchanan – has now himself left COI and the post of deputy has been unfilled ever since because of the civil service recruitment freeze. The next level down, at management board, is also looking a bit threadbare after various departures over the intervening months including the Business Director Ian Hamilton and the Director of Digital Alex Butler. So who is going to mind the shop in the meantime? Perhaps it points to the fact that no one is needed to serve as an interim CEO: perhaps the still-undisclosed government communications review is going to remove the current management structure of COI (chief executive and management board) much as happened to Directgov last year, and COI is going to be moved into the Cabinet Office and run by someone there? Ironically another of the obvious candidates to then run COI would have been the government communications permanent secretary – but Matt Tee announced he was leaving sometime ago and that the post is not being refilled, so that’s another dead end.

Overall this does appear to leave the whole process of the review, the subsequent implementation of reforms, and the running of COI in quite a mess, which is why the timing of Lund’s departure is so surprising. You’d have expected him to wait for the unveiling of the review, and even to put in some of the foundations for whatever restructuring of COI the review indicates. Charitably you can theorise that he’s already hung on longer than he ever meant to, and that each new review or delay in getting a decision from the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, has kept pushing Lund’s personal plans back and back till the point when he has to say “This could go on forever, I just have to draw the line somewhere.” Still, it feels like there were better timings available to him: syncing with Matt Tee’s own announcement, for example; or waiting for the review findings to be published and then saying “I’ve done my bit, laid out the plan, time for new blood to take it forward.” As he’s leaving to set up his own shop, it’s not like he was having to decide on a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that he had to take right now or lose the chance forever.

When I found out the news this morning (ironically while out down by the bank of the Thames having a sandwich in the glorious sunshine and blue skies, couldn’t have been further away from worries of the civil service) I confess that my gut reaction to it was “this is bad.” And I’ve usually been one of the more optimistic and upbeat writers about the situation facing COI and government marcoms going forward. But this news today worried me more than it should have done given that I’d already concluded Lund would be moving on sooner rather than later: inevitably the trade press are going to paint this as signs of an imminent collapse of COI and the death throes of the organisation, and for the first time I started to think that maybe they could be right. Certainly I find today’s news hard to spin into an “actually, this could be good news, don’t count out COI just yet” train of thought. From the outside, it genuinely looks and sounds like an implosion for the first time.

However some messages from friends who still work at COI have already assured me “We aintent dead (yet)!” [sic] and “Indeed, far from it!” and I definitely feel that within COI itself there’s a lot going on, new avenues opening up, new opportunities presenting themselves that give the rank-and-file great hope and optimism that the light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight and that the light is not, after all, an oncoming locomotive bearing down on them. I dearly hope that this is the case, that the review delivers a new framework from which COI can carry out all this new and exciting business, and that most of all the uncertainty is finally brought to an end and that people get to know just what lies ahead and can get on and do it. Maybe today’s news is that “darkest before the dawn” moment and that the review, when it’s published in the next few days (surely?!), will be the sunrise of daybreak.

For myself, I’m relieved to be long out of it – the ongoing stress and uncertainty would have seriously got to me by this stage. It’s bad enough even as just a bystander with no direct personal involvement any more, because I still rather feel like I’m living it with the friends and former colleagues I left there. And yes, I do feel a bit “guilty” at having bailed out, taken the money and run at the end of 2010 while leaving others to soldier on through the intervening months. I wish I was there to support them and work with them for whatever the future holds for COI, but at the same time know that it’s best for me that I’m not. The one thing I realised when I was leaving COI was just how much those who were staying were really enthused, bright and energetic – and unrelentingly optimistic about what the future held in store for them and for the Interactive team; and how, after 11 years there, I could no longer summon up the same reserves to match and just needed to get out into fresh air and clear my head.

Perhaps that state of mind is not all that dissimilar to Mark Lund, having made his own decision today.

I’ve always said that the books and DVDs of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister should be issued to anyone joining the civil service, as the best (humourous) how-to and survival guide there is to life in Whitehall.

Even today, with all the changes that have been introduced in the three decades since the show was first made, it’s amazing how prescient and accurate it is: its 30 minutes on the national ID cards pretty much wrote the outline for the whole sorry story arc of the now-dead 21st century policy. It had stories on cost-cutting, austerity and ministers giving up their official cars long before Cameron and Clegg made that symbolic move after the 2010 election. And just last week I tuned in to an episode on UK Gold to see a story about UK involvement in the global arms trade, and I swear that the arguments in the show uncannily replicated those in the news broadcast on the same day about British sales to Libya dominated the headlines. Truly, Yes, Minister is the closest thing British TV has ever had to The West Wing in terms of conveying hard, topical issues in a funny but informative manner.

The show is a bit of a Whitehall Rorschach test as well: politicians would say “yes, civil servants are exactly like that, always stopping you from getting on with things” while dismissing the representation of weak, dithering, vote-led politicians as rather silly. But ask a civil servant and they will tend to have precisely the opposite view.

Certainly Margaret Thatcher said that Yes, Minister‘s Sir Humphrey was spot-on accurate to the type of obstacle she had to deal with every day; she may have been joking, it was always hard to tell with Mrs T at the best of times. But certainly by the time 1997 rolled around, Tony Blair seemed to completely believe that Yes, Minister‘s view of civil servants was absolutely accurate and indeed had to be tackled head-on from the start. Upon arrival he found the incumbent Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler so little in tune with what he was trying to do – and so clearly not busting a gut to achieve any of the Prime Minister’s instructions – that the man was out shortly thereafter, although after ten years in the post he was about due to leave in any case. His successors Sir Richard Wilson and Sir Andrew Turnbull were scarcely more popular with Blair and had even shorter tenures, until finally the Prime Minister happened upon Sir Gus O’Donnell, the current incumbent, and a man who sees it as his duty to be in absolute lock-step with his political master – just the sort of senior civil servant to appeal to Downing Street.

Blair’s (and subsequently Gordon Brown’s) tenure in Number 10 led to increasing fears of ‘politicisation’ of the civil service – it you weren’t enthusiastically in step with what Labour were trying to do, then you seemed to be eased sideways or out regardless of any lip-service to the impatiality of the service. Or, indeed, the civil servants were by-passed and sidelined altogether: hence the rise of the Special Policy Advisors, leaving civil servants altogether as just faceless facilitators of the routine side of things as so ably lampooned in the biting satire The Thick of It (which while fun, and a definitely-required update to the 80s Yes, Minister, is too busy being witheringly funny to be as useful as the earlier show as an actual how-to/survival guide.)

As concerned and scandalised by this ‘politicisation’ as some politics wonks were in the Labour years, it was still within the bounds of civil service impartiality. While you might be able to ease a civil servant out, you still couldn’t control who would replace them because of the impartial selection and appointment process. But now, under the Coalition, it seems that even this Maginot Line may have been breached.

MP Tom Watson, writing in the obviously highly political Labour Uncut site, has posted answers to FOI requests he’s been making about apparent breaches to civil service recruitment principles – he says that he’s uncovered 30 of them, and that presumably doesn’t include the appointment of former Taxpayers’ Alliance spokesman James Frayne as the (supposedly politically impartial) director of communications at Michael Gove’s Department for Education. According to Mr Watson, other recent appointees to the civil service that have come direct from Conservative or Liberal Democrat political positions include Katharine Davidson, Michael Lynas, Kris Murrin and Rishi Saha – the latter as head of the government’s digital communications after working on the Conservative election campaign at Millbank and previously standing as a candidate for the party in Brent South in 2005.

Mr Watson, in his blog piece, writes: “how could cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, have allowed his appointment to take place?”, adding: “Will civil servants be privately wondering why Gus O’Donnell has not acted to stop these abuses?” When questioned about the appointments, Sir Gus says that he has looked into them and had defended them as entirely proper and verified.

Does any of this actually matter? Shouldn’t we expect any incoming government to want to install some friendly faces who can be trusted to be committed to getting things done: like a new houseowner, they want to come in, redecorate, hang new curtains, put the furniture where it suits them and not the previous owners, right? We’re all the same with a new home. Except that the problem with that analogy is that of course the party of government is not the owner, merely the tenant. Any government, no matter how successful or long-lived, is only ever renting – and so the property is not theirs to simply make any changes that it wishes without clearing it first with the landlord (which would be us, the public.) Ad hoc changes on the fly have repercussions: it’s surely partly Labour’s “easing out” of non-likeminded people that after thirteen years left the Coalition in a position where the civil service looked like hostile territory to them upon arrival, and which justified (in the Coalition parties’ minds at least) urgent and dramatic action to redress the balance by bringing in the ‘right’ sort of people by any means necessary. The roots of the current ‘scandal’ of politicised appointments, therefore, lie rather more in Labour’s four-term ‘redecoration’ and reinvention of Whitehall than the likes of Mr Watson and his former ministerial colleagues would probably care to admit.

The British system has always been that of an impartial, non-politicised civil service, one that continues even when governments fall. It’s not the same in the United States, where whole tiers of the civil service up and leave when the administration changes. In order to do this, there is a 7-week interregnum between the election and the installing of the new government, during which time there’s a frantic round of hiring anyone who has a pulse to fill the tens of thousands of suddenly-vacant positions providing that they have the right political allegiance. The American system emphasises the political need to get things done fast, while the British system emphasises continuity, constant professionalism and an aversion to recklessness albeit at the cost of speed.

It’s surely possible to make the case that the British system is now simply antiquated and out of date, that it needs a kick up the backside if it’s going to be able to deliver the government’s policies with the speed and dedication necessary for the modern world of 24-hour news; while to have a civil service that needs to be convinced first before it’ll start thinking about moving into action could prove disastrous. The fire and passion of true believers getting things done, versus the experience and in-depth knowledge of the impartial civil service who abide by “first do no harm”: each have their strengths – and undoubted weaknesses.

Ideally you’d want to create a service that blends the strengths of both approaches (even if such attempts often end up with the weaknesses of both instead.) That’s what led to the rise of the Special Policy Advisers (SPADs) in the Noughties, a way of adding a political layer without radically changing the underlying bureaucracy; unfortunately the whole approach became discredited over the years to the extent that the Conservative election campaign had to promise to do away with these political appointments on the public payroll – and David Cameron quickly got his fingers burnt when the press roasted him about his ‘personal photographer’ being paid out of the Number 10 budget and had to put him straight back on the Conservative Party books.

So that avenue has been closed up, and the only way the Coalition sees to get that politically-energised and aligned personnel is to bring it into the civil service itself – hence the appointments that we’ve seen over the past year. But this approach has its consequences too: with top jobs going to those “in the party” all the time, what would be left for the dutifully impartial civil servant to aim for career-wise? All the best people will leave if they want advancement and success – or will need to choose a political party as a dance partner. Furthermore, a creeping politicisation will end the impartiality of the civil service: if you allow the top appointees to take overtly politically positions and action in public, then you’ll be powerless to complain about or discipline anyone in the lower echelons who follows suit. We’ll swiftly lose any pretence of a politically-neutral civil service and find ourselves with American-style wholesale clean-sweeps after every administration-changing election, and with it that loss of knowledge and experience of how to get things done that is built up from careers lasting lifetimes.

We might not like it, but we have to admit that it’s the result of past actions on the part of political parties, the media and indeed periodic bouts of outraged public opinion about SPADs, spin and expenses over the last decade. The question is whether we now care enough to do anything about it – to recognise it and talk about it openly rather than let the civil service be twisted and bent out of shape by the slow build-up of dubious precedent as has been the case since the 1980s. If things are going to change, at least let’s think and talk about it properly first.

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.

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.

There’s been a lot happening in the world of government digital communications over the last few days, and I’ve been watching developments with fascination. Still not sure exactly what to make of it all, though.

First up there were whispers on Friday about the CEO of Directgov (the government’s public-facing web supersite) having quit, first ‘broken’ by a tweet from Mark Flanagan and then followed up with wonderful tenacity by Simon Dickson of Puffbox.com; soon there was confirmation in the form of a tweet from the CEO herself, Jayne Nickalls, and then rumours that the whole board of Directgov had been dissolved as well which ended up in a Sunday Express story claiming that Nickalls had quit over concerns that Number 10 was undertaking a “politicised power-grab” of the site. It’s hard not to conclude that all these developments don’t mean something is on the cards, but I don’t seem to be able to read the tea-leaves accurately enough at this stage to know what.

In any case, all of this was really just preamble to the publication of Tuesday of Martha Lane Fox’s review of Directgov’s role and function. Entitled “Revolution not evolution“, its conclusions seemed to extend far beyond just a review of the Directgov site and make major suggestions for the whole of government communications online, specifically:

  1. Make Directgov the government front end for all departments’ transactional online services to citizens and businesses, with the teeth to mandate cross Government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens’ experience of key transactions.
  2. Make Directgov a wholesaler as well as the retail shop front for government services and content by mandating the development and opening up of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) to third parties
  3. The model of government online publishing should change radically, with a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.
  4. A new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office should have absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending.

The publication of the report was accompanied with the official Cabinet Office response (PDF) from the minister, Francis Maude, and some felt that its tone was rather lukewarm in accepting the report’s gung-ho recommendations. I was certainly among those surprised that the official response wasn’t more decisive, but I suspect that’s more because there’s an awful lot of things going on right now and a lot of pieces to slot into position – including a decision about the future role of the Central Office of Information (COI) – and that it simply might not be possible to be any more specific about things quite yet. Again, that makes the tea-leaves annoyingly hard to decipher this week.

In several respects the recommendations simply endorse the current direction of travel: the positioning of Directgov as the main interface for all transactions with citizens is long standing, although the extra and businesses may cause a chill to run through everyone working over at Business Link since it threatens to terminate the reason for that sibling site. The call for APIs is welcome (to my knowledge, it’s not possible to access Directgov’s site content through any feeds or APIs which makes them appear to be hoarding their data, so a commitment to making everything available for reuse just as the wonderful data.gov.uk does for government datasets in general is a very good call indeed.) [Actually that’s unfair, and I’ve been reminded about Directgov | innovate which has been doing much more on APIs and syndication than I had appreciated. So again, the report’s recommendations generally endorse the existing direction of travel here, too.]

The issue of setting and enforcing standards is an interesting one. The Digigov team working out of COI has been creating standards for a number of years, albeit with limited time and resources, but their ever-evolving set of guidelines is hugely impressive (and at this point I should disclose that I’m not exactly impartial, having authored one of the most recent standards on service availability before I left COI.) The team has probably been frustrated to have produced all these guidelines and then not had the clout to mandate and enforce them across government, so if this gives the team a higher profile and more muscle to do so then that’s all to the good.

Currently that team is part of COI, and reading these recommendations I can’t help but wonder what they might mean for my old employer. Will the standards role be taken away from COI and made part of a new or moved team (under a Digital CEO, or ‘Executive Director’ as the role was subtly rechristened in the Cabinet Office response) at the Cabinet Office or within Directgov? Or does this point to a new role for COI in the digital ecosphere, combining this standards enforcement with “the power to direct all government online spending” currently held by the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group? This decision could swing either way, and result either in a hugely empowered COI at the heart of government digital, or else emasculate COI and leave it with a significantly reduced function to play online. Obviously I am hoping for the former here and that COI gets that key new central role.

It was the mention of a new central team in the Cabinet Office “in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments” that has caused most ripples, especially I would assume from those departmental web teams that are fearing their jobs going up in smoke before their very eyes. Neil Williams, head of digital at the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills, has produced a characteristically wonderful blog post on the implications of the report for his team, while his former BIS colleague Steph Gray tackles his concerns of recommendation 3 head on in the excellent “A window on the wormery“. The latter is particularly significant because it provoked a lengthy comment in response from Tom Loosemore who worked with Lane Fox on the report and whose clarifications on this blog rather transforms how recommendation 3 comes across:

The *last* thing that needs to happen is for all online publishing to be centralised into one humungous, inflexible, inefficient central team doing everything from nuts to bolts from a bunker somewhere deep in Cabinet Office.

The review doesn’t recommend that. Trust me! It does, as you spotted, point towards a model which is closer to the BBC – a federated commissioning approach, where ‘commissioning’ is more akin to the hands-off commissioning of a TV series, rather than micro-commissioning as per a newspaper editor.

Here’s where I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand there’s no denying that without central direction, web presences can proliferate like weeds, all of them looking and working totally differently with wildly varying quality of writing and technical standards, making them a nightmare to use or find anything on. But trying to come up with a single site architecture, design and workflow process that works for dozens of different teams even within one department can be a real headache, and trying to extend that approach out to every department and non-departmental public body (NDPB) in government is almost impossible to contemplate. The struggles that Directgov have had to make it to where they are on the content side of things, and how The Club/Steria and before it the DotP CMS advocated by the Cabinet Office tried but ultimately never really managed to deliver on the technical integration front, speak volumes.

Most of my time working in the public sector seems to have revolved around this tension of centralisation versus devolution. Quite often the two things pull simultaneously in different directions even on the same project, especially when the discussions get around to the sort of content management system that a new comms project needs. The people in the policy teams naturally want to be able to control the content they are responsible for, but rarely have the skills or be given the necessary time to do it justice; the people at the centre (comms teams in departments) usually want the control of overseeing all material before its published so that they can enforce standards, but then get exasperated when they’re inundated by requests from policy teams to make changes or add new material. It’s a tricky problem, but not impossible.

One of the projects I worked on for the longest time in the public sector was the Department for Education’s Standards Site, sadly now gone in the DfE’s sweeping overhaul of their web sites since the election but still accessible through the National Archives’ repository of government websites. It had the task of providing a single site for around two dozen different policy teams, ranging from massive amounts of content for the Literacy and Numeracy strategies and the Schemes of Work supporting the National Curriculum, to very small sites for policy areas such as Gifted and Talented children. The central team supplied the basic infrastructure (CMS and hosting), insisted on the same header and footer across all the pages and encouraged a design “harmony” across the site without mandating detailed branding guidelines other than accessibility standards, but otherwise allowed the teams to add and maintain their own content and define their own sub-site navigation. You might expect this to have devolved into a complete mess but in fact it looked like a perfectly integrated offering, blending a wide variety of designs and look-and-feels which made it visually interesting and appealing rather than ending up with a one-size-fits-all blandness. Where other supersites like TeacherNet (another DfE site of the time) or even Directgov have sometimes been accused of frustrating and angering the teams forced into conformity and becoming disillusioned by being separated from the content for which they are responsible, the teams contributing to the Standards Site never had any such concerns. (They had other complaints instead, for sure – nothing is ever perfect!)

I like to think that what Loosemore’s clarification alluding to a BBC-style federated commissioning approach points to is something along this line. At the time we took it for granted that the Standards Site wasn’t doing anything special and was just “getting on with things”, but as I’ve seen other integration projects come and fail and go, I look back to that project and still find it ahead of its time and a genuinely effective solution for the problems that government websites still face today. But if instead recommendation 3 ends up being misinterpreted as advocating dumping all government content into one huge platform and then putting in a Cabinet Office team as a gatekeeper, then it will be a sad day for public sector online communications indeed. It’s a real test of the Coalition’s understanding of and approach to the future of digital.

There’s an interesting coda to Loosemore’s comments:

One final point: The apparent absence of a strong cadre of mutually supportive, mutually respectful, Internet practitioners *across* departments is a major weakness. That’s probably a function of wholesale outsourcing, and Whitehall culture, but it’s a major barrier to nonetheless. Great products come from great culture.

That’s been something of a concern of mine for ages. As departments have tried to contain costs and not add to head counts even before the Coalition age of austerity dawned, more and more digital work has been outsourced to commercial agencies rather than have an in-house web team. It makes commercial sense not to have staff on the books that you might not need 100% of the time, does it not? It does until you need a lot of work doing, and especially if you need it doing in a hurry or if it’s unusual or a one-off, because then the agency costs go up. If you have in-house staff available who know the website and the department then it’s far easier to huddle around a desk and thrash out a quick and accurate solution to a comms requirement, whereas if you have to bring in an agency, brief them, find they haven’t ‘got it’ because they don’t know the ins and outs of the department, then it’s akin to doing brain surgery while wearing oven mitts: possible, but likely to be very messy and result in the loss of important capabilities.

Some government departments have taken the view that they need a strong in-house team to deliver: BIS is one such, and it seems to me that they’ve been a triumph as a result. But for every BIS there are half a dozen more that have little or no in-house web expertise, where the ‘web editor’s job is limited to cutting and pasting Word documents into a CMS and pressing publish, but having no web skills beyond this other than having the web agency’s telephone number in their rolodex. It’s hard to develop “strong cadre of mutually supportive, mutually respectful, Internet practitioners across department” in such circumstances.

On one level, COI has been working on this issue of a “strong cadre” for years ever since it ran the Government Internet Forum in the very early days of government internet activity (c. 2001) to bring together everyone working in the field. Sadly it faded away by 2005 and died an unnoticed death. More recently COI has been working side by side with the Government Communications Network to build a ‘cadre’ of comms people across all government departments and NDBPs, but the proportion of digital comms people (that is, in a more technical capability) still appears very low and so GCN does not have the strong digital focus to it that it needs to fulfil the role Loosemore seems to envisage. Maybe this will change if the government really does adopt Lane Fox’s headline recommendation of making digital the default channel of all government communications from here on? Somehow I see that as a slow process, and in the meantime there needs to be a knowledgeable, specialist ‘cadre’ leading, not following, this transformation. It’s not an easy knot to untangle, and as Loosemore says at the end of his comments: “Hard problem.”

Still, if it was easy, then it wouldn’t be such a fascinating, challenging and rewarding project, now would it? In the meantime I’m going to make myself a nice pot of tea and carry on trying to read the tea-leaves once they start to settle …

Obviously my previous blog post (on leaving my job at COI) was probably the most significant and personal single piece I’ve ever written here, and I’ve been really amazed and bowled over by the response and comments back on it via email, Twitter, Facebook and the rest – thank you, one and all.

It does, however, leave me in a bit of a nervous quandary about The Next Blog Post – it’s got something of that “difficult second album” feel to it after a breakout hit record, where you just know the follow-up just doesn’t have anything like the same importance, depth of meaning or frankly level of interest as that one and is going to be, if we’re honest, a bit of a disappointment. So I thought I’d throw in a quick “managing expectations” post in the meantime to lay out my intentions.

First, the good news (or maybe bad – depends on your point of view): I’ll certainly be blogging a lot more. In the past I’ve been ecstatic to get around to writing a blog post a month, and a post a week would have been a worrying level of hyperactivity from which neither I nor the blog would likely never have recovered. Now, though, with more time on my hands and with the public announcements of my circumstances out of the way, an increased frequency of posting is very much on the cards. You are hereby warned!

Actually, one of the limiting factors of blogging more is simply, “what am I going to write about?”, and here’s what I really wanted to say in this piece: it’s going to be as random, disorganised, eclectic and all-over-the-place as it ever was. Serious pieces about work – or rather, life without work for the time being – will be crammed alongside pieces about films and television programmes. Digital and social media developments will sit alongside pieces on politics, which I can now – no longer a civil servant – actually write and talk about.

I’m still very much interested in government and communications, and about what happens to COI, but I don’t want to become a one-issue blogger who drones on about the same subject every day because I’d bore the hell out of you, dear reader, and if not then certainly me. Also, there’s a lot of thoughts about all that which are swirling around in my head right now, and I need to let the pieces settle a bit before coming back and writing more in that area.

Hence the next post will be about US politics, and the one after that will be a scrapbook of film reviews that I’ve meant to post for about six weeks now but not got around to because of the other things have been going on, and then we’ll see what happens after that.

But in the meantime, just to keep the government comms theme running albeit by slender thread, I wanted to commend two brilliant blog posts I’ve been reading this week by public sector folk, one a former COI colleague.

Sun Tzu for our times?

Ross Ferguson, a former COI-er and now Head of Networks in the Digital Diplomacy Group at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, wrote a fascinating blog post on David Kilcullen, a name not well known in the UK but who was one of the architects of “The Surge” initiative that the US implemented in Iraq.

Ross has written up a great summary of learnings from a 2007 paper written by Kilcullen offering a practical guide for officers engaged in counter-insurgency operations; Ross’s attention was caught by one line asking “what does all the theory mean, at the company level?” which leads on to the idea that the quintessential business poseur’s guide – the 6th century BC “Art of War” by Sun Tzu, often cited but rarely read one suspects – really needs a modern day equivalent. Just as the rules of war and engagement have changed profoundly during the last decade – and relying on a military handbook over two millennia old would be disastrous in this day and age – so too does business philosophy require a thorough updating and overhaul to meet a profoundly different landscape.

Among the lessons: Know your turf; Diagnose the problem; Travel light and harden your CSS; Find a political/cultural adviser; Train the squad leaders – then trust them; and Rank is nothing: talent is everything. As with the best blog posts, it’s thought-provoking and will get your brain whirring with ideas and possibilities.

Innovation functions in large organisations

The same is true for Kate Bennet’s post on the lessons she learned about innovation working on a graduate scheme at the Department for Work and Pensions. Long time readers of this blog will know that I have a particular interest in innovation, and in particular with how anything approaching innovation can be achieved in such a large and habitually resistant-to-change culture as the civil service, so Kate’s blog post on the subject couldn’t have been more on my wavelength if I’d asked for a special commission.

There’s some really valuable advice here – from the need to mix old experienced hands with newcomers who are keen, fresh and eager; the need to push boundaries but still be aware of the need to win high-level friends and not alienate them; to the very important point that innovation is not the same as inventing from scratch, and that it’s not about the latest gadgets either. Kate finishes off with “sometime you have to forget the rules and just do it”, which is very true but also very difficult in a large organisation as there can be big consequences and frankly most of us are risk-averse, safety first especially when it comes to career-affecting judgement calls. As Kate wisely counsels at the very end of he piece: “if you push it too far then make sure you have a back-up plan.” Gulp!

Plus, I have to say that with its colourful and appropriate icons for each lesson, this is one of the more visually appealing blog posts I’ve read in a while. Makes me think I need to liven the place up around here!





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