Matt Tee's plan to overhaul COI draws mixed response from PROs

Tee's vision of a new Government Communications Centre draws mixed response.

All change: Tee's plans would revolutionise government comms
All change: Tee's plans would revolutionise government comms

Plans to replace the 65-year-old Central Office of Information have received a mixed response, with one former Whitehall comms chief fiercely critical of the main thrust.

Outgoing permanent secretary for government comms Matt Tee was commissioned last year by Cabinet Office Secretary Francis Maude to manage the review, working alongside COI chief executive Mark Lund.

Tee revealed the findings of his wide-ranging review last Friday, calling for the COI to be replaced with an all-new government body that Tee has named the Government Communications Centre.

Former director-general of the Government Information and Communication Service Mike Granatt warned the implementation would be 'fraught with Whitehall politics' and the new body would have 'more than a passing resemblance to a party political machine'.

However, former Downing Street head of strategic comms Mark Flanagan said the move was 'wise and pragmatic', adding it spelled 'an end to the COI gravy train for marketers and media owners'.

While much of Tee's report focuses on advertising and marketing, the Cabinet Office has since provided guidance that the appointment of PR agencies would be restricted to those campaigns the Government cannot carry out because they are too big or specialised.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: 'Only when there is a specialist piece of PR or something larger than can be done in-house will it be handed to PR agencies in the same way as it is now.'

The procurement of external PR services would also be focused around Tee's proposed 'thematic' model with which he plans to revolutionise government comms.

While departments would be forced to give up their advertising and marketing staff to be based within the central GCC, they would maintain their own distinct press officers.

The Cabinet Office said press officers would be expected to 'broaden their comms skills in terms of overall PR. There would be more general PR done in-house'.

Meanwhile, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell is understood to be seeking a central advisory role within the new comms set-up, after his work earlier this year on a group that advised on the COI's future.

REVIEW: KEY POINTS

- Some government comms have been 'unrelated to an overall sense of government priorities' and have 'not always been based on the best evidence', and so the Government should agree a new comms strategy.

- This strategy would be carried out by a new body called the Government Communications Centre, which would replace the COI.

- Comms activities should be focused around just six themes across Whitehall that may contain campaigns, programmes and contributions from several departments.

- Marketing and advertising staff to be centralised within GCC, but departments would have their own press officers.

1,940 - Current number of comms people across government
1,000 - Planned reduction of comms headcount across government
150 - Number of staff in proposed Government Comms Centre
£54m - Expected savings to be brought by the review
Source: Cabinet Office

HOW I SEE IT - Mark Flanagan, partner, digital comms, Portland

So, farewell COI, hello GCC. These are typically wise and pragmatic recommendations from Matt Tee, which, if implemented, would bring about a more powerful centre and deliver better value for the taxpayer.

It is an end to the COI gravy train for marketers and media owners but, in the current climate, a more joined-up and self-funding structure is the only way to go. The review is excellent news for digital comms - as Tee says the Government should be making much greater use of its digital assets.

There ought to be a central unit co-ordinating online campaigns and using social media to add greater value to paid comms. There are more than 2.5 billion page impressions available across the HMG digital estate that could be corralled for cross-government messaging. Advertising on government websites? There's a radical thought.

HOW I SEE IT - Mike Granatt, partner, Luther Pendragon

The pre-1984 COI model of central control failed because it delivered mediocre results. Standards rose dramatically when the money was transferred to departments and the COI had to prove its worth.

One of Tee's options - a small central operation driving co-ordination and professionalism - makes sense. However, his favoured option, the grander central machine, is just a reinvention of the COI using hijacked departmental resources. It would be fraught with Whitehall politics and dogged by the illusion that government comms can be arbitrarily shoehorned into six themes.

Dangerously, it has more than a passing resemblance to a party political machine designed to build political image, rather than support public policies and programmes.

Editor-in-chief's opinion

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