Opinion: Why the COI has no genuine power

The COI, responsible for one of the biggest spends in UK communication - around £200m a year - is soon to publish its annual report. But I want to know why the group, with all that apparent money and power, is a ‘non-ministerial department'.

The UK has only had a Ministry of Information twice - during the two world wars. Lord Beaverbrook ran the first; and during the Second World War, the most successful minister of information was Brendan Bracken, the brains behind the Financial Times.

Bracken's main responsibility was drumming up support for the war at home and overseas. The other ministries ran their own campaigns using Ministry of Information expertise and central publicity budget. Bracken was very effective.

He recruited some of Britain's finest creative minds, and built up a crucial personal dialogue with the US press at a time when the country was waveringly neutral.

But Bracken was just too ambitious. When he suggested his ministry should control all government campaigns, his Cabinet colleagues were outraged: legally, only a departmental minister could control a departmental policy and its supporting campaign. 

So that was that. The Ministry of Information was on tap, but not on top.

After the war, the ministry lost its minister and became the COI. However, its director-general became head of Whitehall's professional information officers, and the new department still held the purse strings - until Thatcher's day. 

In the mid-1980s, the COI became a trading fund. Its publicity budget was dispersed around Whitehall, making departments its ‘customers'. The retitled chief executive could hardly run his customers' careers, so the ‘head of profession' role went to Bernard Ingham.

So that is why COI has no real power or money, and reports to a Cabinet Office minister who is not the minister for information. It is also why the permanent secretary for government communications, Howell James, does not really run the government's comms - ministers do.

As ever, the power lies with No 10, and the money with departments.

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