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FEATURE28 March 2012

Bye bye, COI

You can see the political logic of the government’s decision to close the Central Office of Information. But where they go from here is not so easily understood. Brian Tarran reports.

The Central Office of Information (COI), the body that emerged in 1946 to carry on the communications work handled by the wartime Ministry of Information, was set for the chop as soon as the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government came into power in 2010. They had a cost-slashing agenda and it had grown too big and too unwieldy in the eyes of some. Communications spending had got “out of hand”, according to Cabinet Office secretary Francis Maude.

A review by permanent secretary Matt Tee called for a new centralised body, much reduced in size. He wanted to position this new body much closer to the development of government policy and communications than the COI had ever been. This was a key failing of the current set-up, said Tee; that and the fact that existing communications were “not always based on the best evidence”, that they lacked “good measures of impact or effectiveness” and that they used a media mix which was skewed towards more expensive, less targeted channels. “All of these need to be addressed in a new approach,” Tee said.

But will they be addressed now that the government has rejected most of Tee’s recommendations? Maude decided against replacing the COI with a 150-strong centralised communications function when it closes at the end of this month. Instead, the Cabinet Office will take on a team of about 20 people led by an executive director to “coordinate” communications campaigns across government. This, Maude said, will be “more transparent, better co-ordinated and less bureaucratic”.

Others are not convinced. Prospect Union general secretary Paul Noon said: “A shared service that has worked well and is respected by the industry in which it operates is about to be chopped into little pieces. It makes no sense at all.”

Just politics?
Politically, though, it does make sense. “Government clearly has a view that things should be less centralised, less bureaucratised and more closely controlled by the people that are making the decisions, so closing the COI kind of fits with that ideological approach,” says Bobby Duffy, who heads the Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute.

“Government has a view that things should be less centralised and more closely controlled by people making decisions. Closing the COI fits with that ideology”

Nick Baker, managing director of Quadrangle, also notes the “political motives” behind the decision, but says that: “For me, there was definitely a real decline in the quality of the work that was driven by the COI. There are multiple examples of really good communications work that has been done by COI,” says Baker, “but its centre of gravity has shifted over time from being an organisation that was able to deliver creativity and impact to become essentially a procurement body, which – in some cases – did more than what a normal procurement function does.”

COI offered tiered levels of service to the government departments that were its clients, Baker explains. “There was a light-touch approach or there was a fully managed approach, and some strange variants in between.” Tom Wormald, a former engagement consultant at the COI, now a research director at ICM, explains the process from the inside. He says: “You’d have some clients that would come to you and say, ‘We are very clear about what we want. We know what we need’, while others would be looking for us to help find the best way to answer what they wanted to ask.

“After the scoping phase, some clients would say, ‘We’d like to manage this ourselves. We have the skills and the resources’, and COI would then take a procurement-only approach. But at the other end of the spectrum you had clients who would say, ‘We need COI to be more active in managing and delivering this project.’”

In these instances, says Baker, the COI became the very definition of a middle man – going so far as to call them a “barrier” at times – between the agency and the people within government who would use the work that was commissioned. “The notion of things being lost in translation was quite often the case,” says Baker. “There are examples of work that was done that was very good, but when it was delivered the end-user would say that it didn’t do what they wanted it to do because of this disconnect.

“The bastardisation of different working models the COI had means that I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that all that they did was rubbish. That’s not true at all – but it was hit and miss,” he says. “You put all of those different steps in between the agency and the real user of the work and no matter how good everybody is in the chain you are going to get miscommunication.”

No third way
Now, there is no middle man – no barrier between supplier and buyer. The COI’s many rosters have been put under the management of the Government Procurement Service, through which departments will be able to buy services direct – something they were also able to do towards the end of the COI’s run, in exchange for only a minimal management fee – “literally hundreds of pounds”, says one former employee.

The COI had 20 framework agreements in total, catering to the full range of work it might be called on to do. There were rosters of ad agencies, design firms, media buyers, events organisers, web developers, PR agencies and, of course, market research firms. At its peak, in the 2008/09 financial year, the COI was spending £540m a year.

None of that money was theirs, of course. The COI operated as a trading fund. “It didn’t receive a central Treasury budget but instead spent money on behalf of clients from across government who wanted to run a campaign, carry out some research – do whatever it was they were doing,” explains Wormald.

In its peak year, the COI spent £29m on research. In its 2010/11 annual report, the last year for which figures are available, total spend had fallen to £168m – and just £9.5m of that was research-related.

By that point, the supply of research services far outweighed the COI’s demands. A total of 108 agencies were appointed under the market research framework – divided into five individual lots and sub-divided into a further 14 ‘labels’. But even in the boom years there wasn’t enough work to keep all those companies happy.

Winning a place on the COI roster was “a little bit like going to heaven and then being asked to work in the kitchens”, says Jon Priest, CEO of SPA Future Thinking, which features on both the quantitative and qualitative rosters. “It’s a brave agency that puts a lot of work in to a request for proposal against 60 other agencies.”

The sheer size of the roster prevented suppliers from forging proper relationships with the COI, says Priest. “You could do a good job for them and then somebody else within the organisation might ask for something similar, but the agency that had done the previous piece of work would be right to the back of the queue again and asked to bid against 60 others. You couldn’t build a relationship like you would with a typical commercial client. You couldn’t build momentum.

“We acknowledge that they were in an invidious position and we acknowledge that they were, to a certain extent, controlled by European directives,” says Priest. But he questions whether an organisation can ever have over 100 suppliers on a roster and assume that that’s going to create value for them. “If you are on the roster as a quant specialist and they have a project which is a quant brief then that has to be sent to all the agencies on the quant roster. But you were often reminded not to bid for everything and to only bid for things if you felt you were particularly good at doing it. Now, what if the best agency at the best price decides that, on this occasion, it’s just not worth the heartache of bidding and maybe losing?”

All a roster of that size does is create a market within a market, says Priest. “And that’s where I felt that it actually fell away.”

Battling behemoth
The roster of 108 will remain in place until June 2013, but after that… No one is quite sure what comes next. Perhaps the framework agreement terms will be extended for another year or two, or the Government Procurement Service (GPS) will decide to hold its own review. And then there is the question of the ‘hubs’. The Cabinet Office has said that the specialist functions previously offered by the COI, such as research and design, will become part of “some sort of shared service” – but it is yet to be decided which government department or departments will take charge of those, how they will be staffed and how they will function.

“At its peak, the COI was spending £540m a year, £29m of it on research. That has fallen to £168m – and just £9.5m of that was research-related”

As to the current state of play, Ipsos Mori’s Bobby Duffy says: “We are seeing things coming through from Buying Solutions, the GPS website. It’s less than we saw from COI, and people are using it in different ways. You can also tell that there’s less advice there for people because they’re using it to just ask for bits of information or to actually get people to apply to go on their own departmental framework. It’s being used as a kind of filter as much as a purchasing channel.”

Duffy reckons the loss of the COI makes it “a bit more difficult” for those buying. “Do they buy less, or – where they can – do they go to people they know rather than trying to do it through frameworks? There’s a risk there,” he says, “But it’s not clear whether people are going to get more advice and guidance when the hubs are up and running.”

There’s little to suggest that the changes will make it any easier on suppliers, too. Outside the rosters held by individual departments, a centralised procurement process remains, but without the specialist sector expertise that resided within COI. Dealing with the COI, “you did have people who knew about research and who could push you a bit on new approaches and new ways of thinking,” says Duffy. “I think they were better at advising buyers on value rather than just what’s cheapest, which was a useful thing for research companies to have in place relative to a GPS-type procurement person, who is buying everything from staplers to toilet rolls”.

Jane Frost, the former individual customer director at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, who was recently appointed chief executive of the Market Research Society, says: “Government needs to understand that the research business, while it has its big players, has a large number of small and medium sized enterprises. If you want to encourage innovation and good research, behemoth-type procurement could actually be very detrimental to the sector.”

But of course innovation didn’t only come from outside the organisation, says Deborah Mattinson, founder of BritainThinks and a former pollster to the last Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who worked with the COI for many years in her previous company, Opinion Leader.

“My feeling is that they provided pretty good value to the government departments that they worked with. Obviously they had purchasing clout, but I think they had some really good people and shared learning and expertise that was very valuable to government departments.

Mattinson adds: “At its very best, what the COI did was often very innovative – pushing the boundaries of techniques and thinking – and I wonder if that will be able to happen on the same scale now. Look at some of the work that was done on behaviour change, some of the work that was done with digital methodologies, the deliberative work – it’s harder to see how that would happen through an individual department.”

A second chance?
In a blog post lamenting the demise of COI, Pete Stevenson, the creative director of The Edge Picture Company, said: “We’ll look back and say that the COI was the worst way for the public sector to communicate except for all the other ways that were tried after it was closed down.” Indeed many wager that it won’t be long until some bright spark in the Cabinet Office hits on the idea of forming an Office of Centralised Information to handle procurement, manage projects when needed and act as a pool of shared knowledge and expertise in communications and associated disciplines, like research.

Others doubt such a re-birth would be possible. A source close to the COI said: “It can’t be recreated. It’s a unique organisation that has evolved over a 70-year period to meet the changing requirements of government and communications. You had parts of the organisation that were incredibly specialised and once that’s all dismantled it won’t be possible to recreate it again.

“Sure, services can be replicated perhaps, but the idea of having a single destination where you can go and have anything from the Bloody Sunday report being read in a locked room by a team of security-cleared proofreaders, through to people working on future recruitment and flu jab adverts…. I doubt that will ever exist again to be honest. Certainly not in our careers.”

The decision to close COI is something of a gamble. People might well grasp the political logic of the decision, but very few would argue that the government has mapped out a credible plan for the aftermath.

As another anonymous source remarked: “I have some sympathy with the idea that if you want to cut costs, the way to do it is to stop all spending and get people to fight for what they really need. But what you don’t do is pull down a house to see what sort of tin shack gets erected afterwards.”

3 Comments

7 years ago

The government's approach seemed to be "it's a bit broken so let's smash it". The COI had become to big and failed to define its function precisely enough but that was a reason for reform, not abolition,

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7 years ago

Researchers at COI have mainly always been made up of private sector, agency side researchers. Agencies see only one side of the role played by the research team at COI which, depending on the department, was mainly consultancy driven giving advice from start to finish of a project - writing and improving sometimes shocking briefs to embedding findings. I am sure many of those smaller agencies on COI frameworks would never have been selected had the COI research team not driven clients to try the often more innovative and adventurous approaches in proposals. Most govt clients only want a big name. I am sure many of those featured in this article will be happy to know quite a number of the research team at COI will continue to work in govt as their direct client rather than the middle man - however the public contract regulations will still exist and remain the barrier for any buying process, goodbye and Good luck

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7 years ago

COI did lose focus (due to weak leadership) a few years ago and it's organisational structure allowed departments within it to run independently. Admittedly, these were two major problems... However, now that agencies have direct access to marketing and communications teams within government, there will be no protection against high and ever-rising costs for services. Many of the marketing and comms teams within Government departments have little or no real experience working with the creative industry 'additional costs' will soon start to creep in. Watch this space...

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