COI demise part of the new Whitehall reality

Russell Parsons

News that the Central Office of Information (COI), one of the UK’s biggest generators of direct marketing, is but a rubber stamp away from being axed should come as no surprise to anyone tracking the movements of a Government hell bent on creating a leaner and more efficient civil service. It is also not a move that that anyone should shed any tears over.

It is proposed that the 60-year-old body is to replaced by an all singing all dancing strategic body – the Government Communication Centre (GCC) – that will co ordinate all of the Government’s marketing strategy as well as manage the procurement and paid for advertising that the COI does.

The departing Permanent Secretary for Government Communication Matt Tee’s recommendations, published last week, have yet to be accepted and implemented by Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude. But the emphasis on producing a focussed, nimble communications network that will operate with considerably less staff could have come straight from the pen of Maude and his Treasury cohorts in the Efficiency Reform Group.

The changes on the table – a centralised marketing body to develop and plan all Government marketing strategy, market research, procurement and insight – ticks all of the coalition’s requisite boxes.

The GCC will be cheaper – headcount will be reduced by up to 1,000 people – and, it is hoped, more efficient

In his review, Tee illustrates his new vision for Government marcomms with a hypothetical campaign “Britain in the World” where six “theme teams” deployed to six Government departments would create six campaigns with one common theme, under central stewardship.

Tee says the approach would mean “fewer but clearer, more focused activities, which avoid duplication and the bombardment of multiple, fragmented messages to key audiences and partners.”

A mantra that could have come straight from any marketing director at any company blessed with a multi-million pound marketing budget spread across a large brand portfolio.

And another reason that Tee’s plan is likely to be accepted by a Government that has demonstrated its willingness to call on the help of the private sector to inform policy.

The suggested overhaul has been coming since the coalition took office in May. The Government’s approach to tackling the budget deficit was immediate and severe spending cuts, with marketing and communications spend one of the first areas to be tackled. To make up for some of the shortfall, the Government turned to partnership with the private sector to continue to spread the word for less money.

What has been announced is an inevitable consequence of this new reality. The old model, with a Government determined to drive efficiency improvements across Whitehall, was simply not fit for purpose anymore.

The COI’s probable demise is an inevitable consequence. Less call for its services and less staff – it cut 40% of its workforce last year after ad budgets plummeted – mean that realistically it can longer justify being a standalone body.

The direct marketing, data, digital and PR providers reading this should not worry about this latest move. Paid for advertising will continue under Tee’s plan. The proposals are just illustrative of what has been coming for almost a year.

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