NEWS23 June 2011

Jobs at risk as government confirms COI closure

News People

UK— The Central Office of Information, the government’s communication and advertising arm, is to close, putting more than 400 jobs at risk.

The Cabinet Office said it wanted to “consolidate” the reductions it had made since freezing most of its ad spending last summer, and ensure that remaining communications spending was “better coordinated and executed”.

Trade union Prospect said staff at the COI, which was set up in 1946, were “shocked and devastated”.

The government has decided against replacing the COI with a 150-strong centralised communications function when it closes in April next year, as was proposed in March. Instead, the Cabinet Office will take on a team of around 20 people led by an executive director to “coordinate” communications campaigns across government.

A communications delivery board, chaired by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, and made up of ministers and departmental directors of communications, will also be set up, as well as a communications procurement unit.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said that 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 this.

It is also too early to say how many of the COI’s more than 400 staff will be re-employed under the new structure, he said.

Last year the COI cut its headcount by 40% and saw its spending fall 68% to £168m in 2010-11. Its budget had risen sharply in the years leading up to the financial crisis, and research had grown as a proportion of its spending, accounting for more than £29m of the £540m total at its peak in 2008-09.

Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “This government has slashed unnecessary spending on communications. These important and significant changes to government communications structures are designed to reflect this and to save more money by cutting bureaucracy and reducing duplication. This does not mean the end of vital and cost effective marketing campaigns – such as those campaigns that save people’s lives. However, it does mean that communications spending in the future will never again get out of hand and instead will be more transparent, better coordinated and less bureaucratic.”

Paul Noon, general secretary of the Prospect union, condemned the move, which he said had been taken without consultation or warning. He said: “This has come completely out of the blue. Across government, ministers are centralising finance, HR and procurement in order to save money and cut duplication. At COI 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.”

Noon warned that the government’s communications would now be in the hands of agencies “who are certain to be more expensive than in-house professionals”.

Hamish Pringle, director general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, said today: “We can only hope that the new regime being put in place will never forget that the campaigns the COI, their clients in government and their agencies produced have saved many lives and saved millions in taxpayers’ money.”

Most of the COI’s staff are in London, and it also has offices in Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Plymouth.