The surprise resignation of the COI's chief executive this week has been widely viewed as a stark warning of the significant changes likely to hit his department.
Former advertising agency chief executive Mark Lund announced he was quitting the Government's marketing department on Monday, after two years at the helm.
The news comes just days before Lund was expected to deliver his recommendations on the future of the COI to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, alongside outgoing permanent secretary for government comms Matt Tee.
Industry sources have pointed to Lund's departure as an indication that the department will no longer exist in its current form. In January, the COI launched an industry consultation over its future, which closed two weeks ago.
A number of key figures contacted by PRWeek have called for the body to be subsumed into the Cabinet Office, while another suggestion is for the COI to be privatised and outsourced to an agency.
A former government director of comms said Lund's move was indicative of a winding down of the function. He said: 'What's the point of the COI when there is increasingly less to do? And specifically less advertising? It is a function not needed in its current form. Maybe Lund is leaving the ship before it is submerged under the waves.'
The former director added that Cabinet Office director of policy comms Jenny Grey was likely to take charge of the COI function if it was absorbed into the department, given that she has recently taken the wider role of cross-government campaign development.
Another former Government comms executive said the decision could indicate a move to reform the COI into a more PR-led body: 'Lund is an advertising man. If the COI becomes much more PR-oriented, he would not want to be involved in it.'
The Cabinet Office denied there was any connection between Lund's departure and any forthcoming changes at the COI.
Despite speculation over the future of the COI, the Cabinet Office did not rule out appointing a successor to Lund, who will continue in his post until the end of May. An announcement on the future of the COI is expected shortly.
- 7 March COI chief executive Mark Lund resigns
- 2 March Cabinet Office announces marketing freeze for four more years
- 19 January COI issues first PR brief for seven months
- 13 January Cabinet Office appoints roundtable of experts to advise on future of COI, including WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell
- 26 November 2010 Permanent secretary for government comms Matt Tee resigns
- 12 November COI loses director of comms Neil Martinson and PR and client director Oliver Hickson.
40%: The amount by which the COI workforce has been cut since August
£100k: Campaigns costing this amount or above require approval
£133m: Savings made by temporary marketing freeze
£3bn: General savings required by Civil Service by end of this financial year
Source: Cabinet Office
HOW I SEE IT
Two former government comms chiefs analyse how things may pan out
LUCIAN HUDSON - Partner and MD, Cornerstone Global Associates (former director of comms, FCO)
I can't see government campaigns never being carried out again. This review will be dealing with how much can be done by departments and how much can be done centrally.
The Government's general direction is to centralise human resources and all sorts of specialist areas. This review will be consistent with the overarching strategy to spend less and use resources better, and locate that in the Cabinet Office or another department so there is no risk of duplication.
Comms might be different because Downing Street and the Cabinet Office might want to take a view on PR.
I expect to see department comms directors acting more like commissioners of PR activities, rather than having teams to produce it.
So, something like the COI is bound to remain.
MIKE GRANATT - Director, Luther Pendragon (former director-general, Government Information and Comms Service)
First, the Government abolishes the Advisory Committee On Advertising - external experts who scrutinised COI's massive spend to ensure good practice.
Now the chief executive suddenly says he is off, suggesting the end for Whitehall's main counterbalance to lavish, above-the-line spending habits.
Times of economic tumult and social strain demand the very best from the Government's ability to hold public attention, make its case for change, and influence audiences.
Government comms are hardly perfect, but Matt Tee's role provided a strong, professional voice in the heart of Whitehall, while the COI gave it a critical mass of expertise and buying power.
Now both look lost. Let's hope Francis Maude has a credible plan to sustain professional practice, co-ordination, and propriety across Whitehall.