So, farewell then COI?

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.


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