While the abolition of the COI has been condemned by some it should serve as a lesson for all communicators.
Formed in 1946, it seems that it couldn’t make the jump into the ‘post-bureaucratic age’, and this is a lesson for everyone in government communications.
If you are not seen to provide real additional value, be that through leadership within the organisation or through innovation with colleagues to share resources, you may not survive the age of austerity.
We now need to create a new breed of chief communication officer, capable of handling transformation by delivering behaviour change, influence policy by guiding and delivering the corporate narrative, understand finance and managing internal change.
It looks like the position of Whitehall directors of communication will fulfill this brief, and their position has been strengthened by this move.
And this new devolved structure can have benefits.
First, it should encourage greater creativity through agencies and departments working more closely together to achieve more for the citizens they serve. Partly this depends on whether the procurement can be kept light touch, to allow experimentation and agencies the opportunities to try out new ideas.
Second, it should herald a reduction in bureaucracy. There’s no doubt that the COI was well respected by many in the industry and some of their work was fantastic, but it also built a reputation for adding process, bureaucracy and duplication, rather than benefit to some projects. It didn’t discover the potential of the local government market until very late – and that betrayed a certain aloofness.
Third, this should be an opportunity to get Whitehall departments working collaboratively with other agencies and local councils. This is already beginning to happen; witness the Department of Health working with local authorities on the successful Change4Life campaign and the Welsh Assembly Government with LGcommunications on training. This shows the potential of what can be achieved and should be embraced by all.
But is this approach going to result in real value for money? Short term gain may be offset by the proliferation of more expensive media agencies and duplication. There is a huge responsibility on the cabinet office to ensure they are getting this right.
Local government might respond by creating a virtual ‘Local Office of Information’ offering to syndicate successful central government campaigns across local areas, acting as a one stop shop for Whitehall.
Local authorities could then deliver campaigns as the Department of Health and Department for Education are already seeking to do in areas like summer activities, diet and child protection.
Nottingham City Council’s innovative ‘Portfolio Project’ is a pioneer in this regard providing proven common and transferable campaign templates.
The communications landscape has changed, for better or for worse, and now we have to adapt to and embrace this change to create a new model for public communications.
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council