PROFILE: Jim Coe, DoEE; Making policies public property

Jim Coe hits the final straight after 30 years in the corridors of power

Jim Coe hits the final straight after 30 years in the corridors of power



For a civil servant approaching retirement after nearly thirty years in

the Government Information Service, Jim Coe, the Department for

Education and Employment’s director of information, is surprisingly

upbeat.



‘I have been incredibly fortunate,’ he says. ‘GIS jobs are the best in

the civil service in terms of their breadth. If you are a policy

official you are only dealing with one particular policy area. But in

this job it’s the entire department so whatever is happening is

something you have an interest in.’



Perhaps another reason why Coe has survived five government departments

and seven cabinet ministers is his skill in adapting to different

personalities. Adjectives like approachable, urbane and personable

abound from colleagues and journalists alike. One former colleague even

suggests that his very niceness could be a fault: ‘You wonder how rough

and tough he can get with people.’



Coe’s career began on the other side of the PR fence in 1958 as a 17-

year-old reporter for the North Wales Press Agency. Further stints as a

journalist followed on the several local papers before he finally wound

up as assistant news editor on the Birmingham Post. Unhappy with working

unsociable hours on the night news desk and recently married, Coe took a

job as press officer for electronics giant GEC/AEI Telecommunications in

1966.



‘Probably that’s the bit of my career I liked the least,’ he recalls. ‘I

found that big business was very bureaucratic. It wasn’t easy to be

innovative.’ Two years later a post came up at the Central Office of

Information in Birmingham and Coe grabbed the chance.



From there he moved up the ranks of the COI, including a brief sojourn

at the Department of Energy in the late 1970s under Bernard Ingham. The

two men worked together again between 1985 and 1987 at Number 10 Downing

Street when Ingham was Margaret Thatcher’s chief press secretary and Coe

his deputy. ‘He was a very good deputy and benefited from a wide

journalistic and PR background,’ recalls Ingham. ‘Although I knew he was

an all rounder, I was rather surprised with his grasp of the political

aspects of the job.’



Number 10 was followed by a further two years as head of information at

the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food where he had to cope

with the fallout from Edwina Currie’s famous claim in 1988 that ‘most of

the egg production in this country, sadly, is infected with salmonella’.



‘That was hairy,’ recalls Coe. ‘Some of the farmers’ wives used to come

through to the press office and hold out the telephone so we could hear

the sound of their husbands killing their entire hen stock.’



Despite the enormity of crises like the BSE scare and the growth of

pressure groups of all kinds, Coe believes that Whitehall’s PR machine

has managed to keep abreast of changes and serve the needs of ministers,

the media and the public alike. Government service PR also presents a

bigger challenge, he argues, than similar functions in commercial

organisations.



‘Government policy is not a normal product,’ he says. ‘In education, for

example, we have 25,000 schools to serve and 400,000 teachers, so we

know where that part of our audience is. But then we’ve got 6,750,000

parents, plus the working population of 26 million and their employers.

Reaching them all is a vast task.’



After stepping down at the next election Coe intends to spent two or

three days a week doing consultancy work. The rest of the time will be

spent writing a novel.



‘Very broadly it will be about the relationship between the political

world, the media and the people on the government side who handle it,’

he says. He declines to reveal if the plot will be based on real life

characters. If it is, it could be a very interesting read.



HIGHLIGHTS



1958 Reporter, North Wales Press Agency

1966 Press officer, GEC/AEI Telecommunications

1985 Deputy chief press secretary to the Prime Minister

1987 Head of information, MAFF

1989 Director of information, Department for Education and Employment



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