NEWS24 June 2011

Government is warned not to lose research expertise in comms restructure

Government News UK

UK — Agencies are warning the government not to lose research expertise as it prepares to close down the Central Office of Information and reorganise its advertising and communications activities.

Yesterday’s news that the COI is to close in April next year did not come as a surprise to most research agencies, but with the government ditching a proposal to replace it with a slimmed down communications centre, uncertainty remains about what the new comms regime will look like, and what the consequences will be for research suppliers.

“Talking about shared services is fine… but if not handled well it can actually lead to duplication, lack of clear ownership and a watering down of expertise”

Crispin Beale

The Cabinet Office has said it will take on around 20 people to “coordinate” communications activities being carried out across different departments, and will set up a dedicated communications procurement unit. It also said there will be shared services in specialist areas such as design and, potentially, research – but we don’t know yet what form these will take or where they will sit.

Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos Mori’s social research unit, said: “It is a pity to lose a lot of skills and experience among COI staff – but that’s true across government research generally. The hard fact is that the market needs to correct to reflect lower volumes – but retaining the best of people’s skills and expertise is very important.”

Crispin Beale of Chime’s Insight and Engagement division (CIE) agreed, saying: “I do fear that the highly competent team of research professionals will be broken up, or individuals will choose to leave. I don’t think this would be a good thing, but it really depends on what the replacement looks like.”

Duffy added that it would be a shame to lose the framework of approved research suppliers, which could make it easier and more efficient for other departments to commission research when they need to.

There is clearly great respect and affection among researchers for the COI, its people and its 65-year heritage, and feelings are mixed about the possible impact of the changes on the quality and efficiency of research – and the campaigns that it supports.

Agencies welcomed efforts to improve efficiency, but warned of the risk of making things worse if it is not handled properly.

Mark Speed, joint managing director of IFF Research, said that work commissioned by a single department might be more straightforward under a new regime, but that multi-departmental projects could suffer. “Potentially there is a role for agencies to become the brokers that help bring departments together,” he said. “This is something we’ve done before – it may be an extra challenge, but it is rewarding when successfully achieved.”

Beale said: “Talking about shared services is fine… but if not handled well it can actually lead to duplication, lack of clear ownership and a watering down of expertise. I personally favour the creation of centres of excellence – such as the highly capable [research] team that Fiona Wood had built at the COI.”

Duffy said there are already more and more cases of public money being wasted on research that is “cheap but not fit for purpose”. Any new function, he said, should focus not just on ensuring the quality of new research but on making sure existing knowledge is used “more smartly”.