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.