I love everything about this 1948 COI film about the NHS. The message – of course – but the look and the music too. As a piece of animation it’s energetic and engaging - quite right that it’s introduced by the COI equivalent of the MGM lion, and carries its own music, design and director credits.
It’s packed with social detail about class and family. Watch the high street shops that Charley cycles past, for example. Charley’s doll-faced missus sits happily darning his sock while he eats his dinner and only gets animated when she has to rescue the baby from the coal-scuttle and give him a (tin) bath. The voiceover is Mr Cholmondeley-Warner at his most patronising, but the film is clear and informative and, at 8′ 37, much longer than a modern attention span would be deemed able to cope with. (In those pre-TV days it must have been intended for cinema screening, so I guess had a captive audience.)
Compare and contrast with this, government communications fans…
Same approach – animation with voiceover, illustrating illness by animating what’s happening inside a body - but no-one with an accent like that would have got anywhere near a film studio in 1948, unless they were going to sweep it. Accents aside, I really prefer the old one – which may be just the charm and strangeness lent by its age. Charley’s insides samba to a sassy beat and magical medicines hover around his bed. Change 4 Life’s faceless plasticine blobs just get gunged up with internal cotton wool and expire early on their faceless high street. It’s just as patronising in its own way, too.
I’d be intrigued to see what an equivalent film introducing Andrew Lansley’s new model of the NHS would look like. What would clinician led commissioning, Foundation Trusts and a new role for Monitor look like? Could it be done in less than 8 minutes? Would Charley and his missus think it was still a bit of all right?
I was badly sidetracked from what I’m meant to be doing today by a podcast of an event from the Institute for Government What Next For Number 10 Communications? Inevitably the focus of the event - “the role of the Number 10 Director of Communications” – was about press relations. A distinguished panel of former prime ministerial press advisers and senior journalists was assembled to talk about the role facing Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s new Director of Communications. It was a fascinating insight into the trials and tribulations of a press handler’s life. But it did leave the impression that the only kind of comms that matters in government is press relations.
For anyone who’s worked in any other comms discipline in government this will sound familiar if dispiriting. For understandable reasons most Ministers are focused most of the time on how they are going down in the press. Other comms approaches don’t seem to have the same resonance with them – even though they might offer more effective ways of communicating directly with the public.
Meanwhile, the review of government comms chugs along, and is due to report soon; and the current Head of COI, has just announced that he’s leaving for pastures new, giving some the impression that COI’s days as a significant player in government comms may be numbered.
I raised some of the questions I’d like to see answered in the comms review here. In particular there are big issues to be addressed around the potential of new media approaches in government comms. The only question I heard raised at the IoG’s event about the role of the internet (by the only woman’s voice I heard at the entire event) wasn’t answered by the assembled gentlemen of the press (which chairman Nick Robinson described, without apparent irony, as “a cosy Radio 4 reunion”). Perhaps my Twitter hero, Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom ”HMG’s data sharing Czar”, is closer to the truth of the government’s approach than I’d imagined (sample tweet: We could use the Internet to allow people to connect directly to Whitehall, like a sort of Departmental Ceefax, via wires as it were.) Can I put in a request to the IoG that now they’ve looked at issues of the press they could turn their attention to the other forms of government communication and debate them? I’d go.
A roundtable of comms experts is working with government to decide the future of COI. I wrote about the beginnings of the process here a while ago. If today’s story in PR Week is to be believed, by the time the white smoke rises from their deliberations, COI will have been ’re-modelled’ out of all recognition.
I worked at COI briefly a couple of years ago - on secondment to the Strategic Consultancy team. It was an eye-opening 12 weeks, which left me feeling honour-bound to defend my former colleagues from criticism – even though quite often I agreed with what the critics were saying.
The commonest complaints from civil servant comms leads were that the services COI offered to departments were expensive and too often not of high enough quality; and that they added little value when they managed projects (but still levied sizeable management fees). In COI’s defence I argued that, as in any agency, there were good and bad practitioners at COI, that the experience of government that resided in COI was a great asset to draw on, and that some of the work they did was excellent. However, COI isn’t like any other agency and shouldn’t behave like one.
There’s an inevitable tension when one organisation is asked both to manage government’s relationships with its suppliers and actively compete with them for business. I don’t think COI managed that tension well, although in fairness they shouldn’t have been asked to. It was interesting that, when last year’s 40% staff cut at COI was announced, there wasn’t a queue of PR professionals lining up to defend it.
How government comms is going to be re-structured is still up in the air – so what role might COI play in a new comms landscape? After a bit of thought I’ve come up with some possible roles. COI could:
- continue in its role as government’s media buyer
- continue to run the frameworks - though they will have to be smaller and less bureaucratic in future; some question the need for them at all
- act as a central training body for government communicators who still tend to be generalists rather than specialists; it could also run the professional networks which exist between departments (though this begs the question of the overlap with GCN, and whether both are needed)
- facilitate the big cross-departmental comms campaigns which need high level co-ordination and administration
- continue to work as a specialist recruitment agency for government – although GovGap‘s impact on the market and its in-built advantage over other suppliers enrages many in public sector recruitment.
None of them feel like compelling arguments for COI to continue. I hope there’s something I’ve missed, but I fear there may be more bad news at Hercules Road once the consultation is over.
PR Week announced this week that government spending on comms has halved since May, and that Matt Tee, the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary for Comms, leaves his post in March and won’t be replaced.
The outlook for government comms is pretty clear. In the short-term at least there isn’t going to be much. Some campaigns will continue because they’re too important (or too difficult) to cancel. Most ideas won’t get off the ground. As the scale of the changes to public services becomes apparent, a need may be identified to do a bit more public communication to explain what’s happening, but we won’t be able to devote the kind of resources to the job that might have been made available a few years ago.
There are, of course, some “process” questions to be answered as cuts are made. For example: the Cabinet Office master-minded last year’s cross-government communication in preparation for a possible swine-flu pandemic. With smaller budgets and fewer hands on deck – and no representation at the most senior levels of government – who will do that next time? But that’s starting to feel like the wrong question to be asking.
I hope that Matt Tee is using the months he has left in post to shape a review of government comms and the role of COI that doesn’t try to deliver the same kind of communications on a smaller scale (and isn’t just about saving the taxpayer money). It needs to ask the classic question for any strategy - what are we trying to achieve? What rightly belongs to government to communicate and what does not ? If decentralisation is the new reality, what does that mean for communication from the centre? What responsibility for communicating with citizens and workforces should rest with local authorities (and how will they pay for it)? How does government use the cleverer, cheaper, more flexible, more customer-centric approaches to communication possible online? And how do you change departmental structures and a Whitehall culture which seems to have made attempts to do this in the past such a nightmare?
Fretting that we’re losing the COI’s bulk purchasing power and expertise in managing procurement, as some people are, supposes that once budgets return to pre-crash levels there will be an appetite to get back to the kinds of campaigns that were a feature of the past five years. I just don’t think that’s going to happen. If it did it would mean that a fantastic opportunity to re-configure comms completely had been missed.
(But only by some)
At the risk of committing career suicide by teasing COI, I thought the NIB in this week’s PR Week summed up everything you need to know about how things work in Hercules Road:
COI is being restructured around six client themes. A briefing from the COI suggests that the reason is planned cuts in public spending. The move will see the COI make 12 new appointments – six group directors and six group strategy directors.