COI is killed off – implications for UK Government comms procurement

Last week, the UK government announced their future plans for central government communications.

This followed the report earlier this year from Matt Tee, who formerly ran the Central Office of Information.  We commented on his recommendations here, particularly those that related to procurement of marketing and comms services.

Tee wanted to set up a new Government Communications Centre (GCC) to replace COI, with procurement of comms related services sitting in this GCC operation.   We didn’t think that was a very good idea and said this:

Why not locate the procurement activity in ERG* with GCC acting as the stakeholder / client; as happens with marketing procurement in most of the best practice procurement organisations in the private sector?

(* the Cabinet Office central procurement function)

Well, Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister, obviously read us, and agreed.  That’s exactly what he has done, creating "a specialist communications procurement unit under the leadership of  Government Procurement".  Except he’s gone further, killing off COI and basically not replacing it at all.  Responsibility for comms activity will sit firmly within Departments.

The new idea appears to be what we in procurement might call a CLAN type structure (“centre-led action network”) with a very small comms  ‘centre’ in the Cabinet Office, facilitating a network of interested parties in the various Departments that will actually spend the money.

Sounds sensible to me, generally and from a procurement perspective.  I’m far from convinced that the old COI model achieved VFM in their procurement activities, because they worked almost entirely with large multiple supplier frameworks – and as we know, without commitment, frameworks don’t deliver value (see our White Paper here for further discussion on that topic).

So, they’ll need some good marketing category managers in the centre, reporting into the John Collington led Government Procurement structure – then let them work with Departments to get some good committed volume deals.  Departments will of course need to make sure they have some decent Comms capability in house, but overall this looks to be a potential success for Maude – significant cost saving and little downside risk we can see.

But I'd be fascinated to see what people more expert than me in comms and marketing think of this - over to you Alex?

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Voices (5)

  1. David Garner:

    As a former COI editor I read this article with a mixture of amusement and dismay. I never realised that procurement (that is, buying things) had evolved a language of it’s own – and what nonsense it is!

    Within COI there is a depth of expertise and creativity that has served this country well. Apart from the award-winning campaigns and public information films, COI has saved hundreds of millions of pounds, year after year, through its control of government advertising.

    Let’s not kid ourselves that this closure is about efficiency. The half-baked proposals I have seen will not lead to better communication or improved co-ordination. What they will do is give the Cabinet Office – and its wonderful Minister Francis Maud – some of the power and profile they crave. The taxpayer (and COI’s soon to be redundant staff) are poorly served by this decision..

  2. Tony Carter:

    Oh dear yet another example of those that know the price of everything, but the VALUE of nothing.

  3. Final Furlong:

    Before we get too carried away…

    The COI was also set up to ensure that when one Government Department launched a major TV campaign (on say, obesity, or smoking) that it wasn’t undermined or contradicted or derailed by another Department TV campaign launched at the same time. Remember the famous AIDS advertisement which showed a tombstone coming out of the ground with the word AIDS carved into it? A major high street bank was literally on the brink of launching a multi-million pound TV campaign – featuring their logo carved into marble – and it all had to be scrapped when they saw the AIDS ad. (Imagine Government Departments making the same mistake and tax payers saying “don’t you guys ever speak to each other?”).

    Upon this simple notion, however, they didn’t build a nimble battleship that could navigate its way through choppy seas and deploy a modern arsenal to effectively defend our shores against the hordes of major marketing maurauders, but a temerarious tanker of truly titanic tonnage, fuelled by a hefty fees which were offset against the not-so-transparent trade-off in treating its entire cargo as a commodity which achieved only the puniest of purchasing power with pirates paddling in parochial pint-sized ponds.

  4. Huhh?:

    The COI was basically a government funded propaganda operation really. As long as they spend hundreds of millions of our money on telling us that eating less makes us less fat then they could clain to “be doing something” and “taking the initiative”.

    The only people who will miss the COI are the enormouse marketing mega-groups who feasted on the ridiculously large government budgets, as I beleive that the COI was at one point the biggest spending advertiser in the UK.

  5. Tony Carter:

    The problem with this solution is that the departmental in-house teams have traditionally acted as procurement specialists not comms specialists. So what does VFM look like when you don’t have a deep understanding of comms, planning, digital, etc? You end up with poor briefs. One of the problems with COI was that they were trying to achieve the impossible, behaviour change purely through comms. Added to this many experts have long argued that comms should be focussed on hard to reach groups not mass audiences, so therefore it undermines the idea of bulk buying, especially when your audience don’t read papers or even watch much TV. To really work Gov needs to move away from the idea of buying media and look instead at using exisiting comms, the letter from the tax office or council tax bill, etc. If behaviour change is the goal then what consitutes VFM and in what time frame? If the brief is to encourage 13year old Iranian girls to stay on at school, how does this structure help to achieve this goal? Large suppliers were at an advantage because they understood the language of Government, but who would be best places to devise the strategy and plan to reach these young girls? And would those procuring the service be able to evaluate where the solutions they were seeing were good or not? This change of structure fails to tackle lots of fundamental issues. Unfortunately, it shows an ignorance of comms and the great work COI has done. He has thrown away highly experienced professionals and left departments weakend.

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