Image is a grave matter for the COI

Carol Fisher, the new chief executive officer at the Central Office of Information (COI), has been given an unenviable job. She has the task of improving the status of this much-maligned government department.

This might seem a strange goal for the Government’s communications department, an organisation that selects ad agencies for ministries, and last year oversaw 110m worth of spending. This level of expenditure makes it responsible for an ad budget on a par with the top five advertisers in the country, though advertising is only one of the things the COI does.

The 305-person department covers virtually all government communications, including sponsorship, film-making, new media, publishing, and conferences. It has a roster of about 30 agencies.

But the COI’s problem is that it is treated with all degree of contempt by the government departments it services.

One source says: “The calibre of people there is, frankly, lightweight. They are not invited to consult with departments at the highest levels, so they have very little input into how policy is communicated.

“Publicly, agencies will say how great it is to work with the COI. But privately they complain they are being briefed by COI personnel who are not close to policy and cannot make final decisions.”

One agency source says: “To justify itself, the COI has to add value to communications. It has to do more than just pick up the phone and invite agencies to pitch for an account.”

As a result, government departments which advertise frequently, such as the Home Office, the Department of Transport, and the Treasury, regularly talk directly to agencies, and make little use of the COI. The COI tends to be more involved with the departments which advertise less.

Peter Buchanan, COI’s head of advertising, denies that the people who work there are below par, saying the team is already being taken more seriously as a consultancy service for various departments.

However, another senior agency source says: “New Labour is all about integrated government, but the COI is not included in the loop. For example, the COI does not run all of the government departments’ Websites, when it makes obvious sense that it should. Departments have done their own thing, without bothering to consult the COI.

“If good account handling is all about proximity and contact, then the COI should be based in Whitehall. Instead it is based in an awful building opposite North Lambeth tube station.”

To improve the standing of the COI, Fisher will have to complete the job that the department’s previous chief executive, Tony Douglas, left half finished.

Until Douglas, formerly joint chief executive of DMB&B, joined in 1996, the COI was seen as an elephants’ graveyard where civil servants went to retire. The department was large and perceived to be less dynamic than it is now.

Douglas cut staff numbers by a third and reduced the number of services it offered. He took the body out of despatch, reference, and overseas radio services. He also negotiated a better deal for centralised media buying. The result of these changes is that for the past two years the COI has saved 1m, which has been distributed between the various departments.

Sources close to Douglas say the next stage was to lobby the Cabinet Office, which controls the COI, in order to keep this surplus and hire senior planning and account handling staff.

One source says: “Douglas wanted to hire a planner, but his problem was that the planning director would have to report to the current head of research. A decent planning director would be on more than twice what the head of research is on. He would have had to totally reorganise the department’s pay structure to get the staff he wanted.”

But Douglas failed to get the backing needed for these changes and left the department in October, with a year still to run on his three-year contract. He is now European chairman of advertising agency Banks Hoggins O’Shea/FCB.

At the final interviews for the chief executive’s job, held on December 1 last year, two of the five candidates asked whether they could use the 1m surplus to hire staff and move offices. The four-person interview panel failed to give this assurance each time.

Jack Cunningham, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, has ultimate responsibility for the COI, but has delegated day-to-day duties for the department to Cabinet Office minister Peter Killfoyle.

One agency source says Fisher has two choices. He says: “She can leave things as they are and muddle through. The job is influential and she could be moderately successful if she did this. The braver move would be to push for more resources and staff to beef up the strategic role of the department.”

This second option means a battle on two fronts. First she would have to argue with the civil service and the Cabinet Office for more resources. Secondly, she would be in competition with New Labour itself.

Labour has communications advisors all the way through government, in effect junior Peter Mandelsons. If the COI wants a place at the table with ministers and their senior civil servants, it will have to fight these communications advisors for a seat.

Fisher has remained tight-lipped about her plans. However, sources close to her say she has pointed to the lack of long-term planning in the organisation as something she must address. Fisher is also well aware of the mixed reputation the body has in government circles.

Senior sources at the COI say the organisation set up a marketing consultancy two years ago, which has begun to advise departments at a fundamental level. These moves must be accelerated if the body is to gain gravitas.

Fisher, whose most recent jobs were planning director at CLT radio, head of international marketing at Courage, and marketing director at Holsten, has a broad range of media and marketing experience.

Colleagues describe her as plain speaking, honest, talented, someone who gets things done and a team player. She will need all of these qualities in abundance, as well as tough leadership skills, if the COI is to gain the ear of those that matter within the civil service and New Labour.

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