Posts Tagged ‘coi’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, this feels weird. It’s Monday morning; I’m not on holiday, I’m not off ill, and I’m not “working from home” euphemistically or otherwise. But neither am I in the office or with any intention of heading in that direction. Instead, for the first time in nearly eleven years, I find myself without an office to go to.
COI’s downsizing programme has been well publicised for months now – as a result of the Coalition’s freeze on marketing expenditure, the government’s communications agency has to shed 287 jobs or 40% of the workforce, and this week sees the final stages of that process. Although it’s been a three month process, the fact that I’m one of those to leave – by choice – still comes as rather a huge surprise to me.
Up until about three weeks ago, I was content in my decision to stay at COI. Of course, I couldn’t know or have much control over whether I would be made compulsorily redundant, but at least I had made the decision that I wouldn’t be applying for voluntary redundancy (VR) – there was almost no difference between the voluntary and compulsory terms, and no difference between going this year or next if a further round of downsizing were to be required.
And I was secure in that decision almost to the very minute when I did in fact hand in the application.
What changed, quite simply, was the terms under which VR was offered. Up until three weeks ago the government was unilaterally imposing capped terms on redundancy payments, even going to the extraordinary lengths of introducing legislation in the form of a Money Bill (an expedited process intended for times of national emergency) to do so. Then all of a sudden, just a week before the deadline for applications for VR at COI and just three weeks before all the redundancies would be announced, the government came to a deal with (five of the six) unions involved: suddenly the cap was gone for 2010, and new terms were in place for 2011. The upshot was that for someone of my age and length of service, the amount I would get now went up by a far greater amount than I had anticipated; while at the same time, I would get even less than the previous capped terms if I were to be made redundant next year. All of a sudden, the maths for staying simply didn’t work.
Of course, it’s not all about the money by any means. By instinct I’m a creature of inertia, happy to stay where I am far longer than is actually good for me, and especially where there is the daily reward of working and playing with a great group of people (colleagues, clients, the various agencies, that I’ve been privileged to work with over the years). In order to prise me out of that comfortable niche it took a big stick of dynamite to even contemplate the possibility, and that’s what the money did – shook me violently enough that I had to go into full decision mode.
That involved talking with various people, both within and without COI, and getting their perspectives; producing the clichéd two-column for/against lists; pouring over the finances. All the advice seemed to be pointing one way; the ‘for VR’ column was way longer than the ‘against’. (I’ll go into more of those for-and-against considerations in future blog posts, if you’re interested.) Once contemplated, the case for leaving COI became irrefutable – to my intense dismay.
The one thing I do rather resent about the whole process is that what should have been a three month period to consider options and get used to the idea became compacted into a matter of just a week, of feeling hustled into the decision far faster than I deserved to be. Ending an 11 year career with a company is a big decision, and that’s why there’s a three month statutory period for this kind of thing. I can’t help but think the spirit if not the letter of this provision was roundly broken when the terms were in flux and changing so often and so late in the process.
But then, if I had had that full three months to consider my options, I’d have almost certainly ground myself into a state of frozen analysis (akin to the way Robbie the Robot fuses when given an order in conflict with its prime programming in Forbidden Planet – great film, go watch!). I would probably have found some way of talking my way out of jumping, some way of rationalising my natural inertia. “Better safe than sorry”, “the grass always looks greener”, “why jump out of the frying pan into the fire?” and all those other well-rehearsed arguments. So perhaps being snowballed into a decision is for the best after all, at least for me.
Time will tell. Right now, I’m acutely conscious that either decision – to stay and risk redundancy in 2011 with a lot less of a financial cushion, or to go and find myself without a job in very austere times – could be a colossal mistake. There’s not enough data to make an informed decision about which is the best (or least-worst) decision, so unless I resort to a coin-toss it came down to the following principle: if I’m going to hang, I’d rather it’s for something that I pro-actively decide to do (moving on, new horizons) than because I was too lazy or scared to try and because I let opportunities slip through my fingers once again.
I’m not entirely done at COI quite yet – there’s a couple of outstanding bits of work to take care of this week, as I didn’t want to leave colleagues or clients in the lurch. But all my files are deleted, out-of-office messages set, my belongings removed from Hercules House, my Blackberry and building pass handed in.
I wish I could say I have a grand, cunning plan for what I’m doing next, but the fact that this came out of nowhere to done deal in three weeks has rather thwarted such good intentions of advance planning. Of course, I have the same smattering of half-developed plans that everyone daydreams about for what they would do if they were free of the daily grind, but now I have to assemble those dozen or so threads into some sort of coherent strategy.
What I don’t want to do is rush into another job similar to the one I’ve just left. If this decision is to make any sense at all, it’s got to result in something new and different and exciting or else I really should have stayed cosily tucked up behind my old desk. So I’m actively kerbing my knee-jerk impulse to run around in job-seeking mode, and have decided to take some time off. After all, along with the redundancy I get is extra pay for all those untaken holidays: if I’d stayed at COI then I’d have had to be taking much of the time through to January off on holiday as it was, so that’s what I’m going to do now.
Of course it doesn’t mean doing nothing at all: there’s things I want to do, and I’ll be on the look out for interesting opportunities. But my immediate task seems to be NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated), something that’s appealed to me in the past but never been feasible because of work commitments. Since I find myself out of work on the stroke of the 1st of November, it seemed like a big neon sign pointing and saying “What excuse have you got now not to try it? Huh?! Huh?!?”
To which end, dear reader, I have to tell you that writing this blog entry has stolen about 1,390 words from my writing quota for the day (and the daily NaNoWriMo target is only 1,667.) You’re being a bad influence on me!
I’d better stop procrastinating and get on with it; with life post-COI.
Way back in September, I blogged about a consultation that some of my colleagues in the Digital Policy team were running on which browsers government clients should test their shiny new websites against. That process proved controversial at the time but had a very happy ending with most everyone reassured that the team had taken on board and listened to the feedback, and incorporated it all into the finished draft that went live in January 2009.
For the next round of guidance review, the team wanted to ensure that they drew from all the lessons learned and used social media in a proper, comprehensive and integrated way so that the final results are even better and smoother this time around than last.
The new round of guidance is related to measuring the costs, usage and quality of government department websites: COI has launched an Improving Government Online microsite publishing the guidance so far and inviting anyone interested to submit comments and ideas on what’s there and how to improve it. This review will run for three weeks starting from 17 March 2009 with the final date for comments is 7 April 2009.
It’s based on the WordPress theme called Commentariat which has been created by the team at the Department of innovations and Skills in the appropriate spirit of true innovation. It’s available to everyone under the GNU Affero licence and is a terrific asset for anyone running a public engagement consultation. Kudos as ever to Steph Gray, DIUS’ Head of Social Media and Stakeholder Engagement. The same set-up was used very successfully for the Power of Information Taskforce Report.
Among the team involved, Ross Ferguson has blogged a background briefing on the project which adds an extra layer of insight into the initiative, in which he notes “this will be the first time that COI has used the social media for the purposes of a consultative review” as opposed to conducting such communications projects for our clients – it’s always very different doing something for yourself rather than for someone else after all.
It was all launched last night (Tuesday evening), and the team’s using a Twitter account (digigov) to both promote awareness of the review and also to act as a general contact point for people who don’t necessarily want to comment on a specific part of the document yet. Digital Engagement Minister Tom Watson’s lent his considerable Twitter influence to the launch, too.
Of course, this is still very new ground for COI. Normally we do communications projects for clients and have no need of reviews, consultatons and public blogs of our own, but times they are a-changing and clearly this sort of social media project is moving much closer to COI’s core business than has previously been the case. Steph Gray has already commented that it feels like “the next logical step would be to seque into some kind of blog for the team for the likes of me to keep in touch with their emerging work and standards” and that’s certainly something I’d be keen to see the Digital Policy team branch out into eventually. They have a lot of interesting things going on and it’d be great to see them get the support and appreciation due.