RIP COI - By Pete Stevenson, Creative Director, The Edge Picture Company,

Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Well, I think we’ll look back and say that the COI was the worst way for the public sector to communicate except for all those other ways that were tried after it was closed down.

The compulsory redundancy notices have gone out to all 400 COI staff – the shutters will go down on 31 March 2012 – but fear not, the Cabinet Office is studying proposals. There are exciting phrases: the new governmental marketing body will comprise "priority theme teams" who will be able to call on a "flexible resource" drawn from the "best talent" from the Government Communication Network.


Let’s take at face value the stated need to decimate the amount of money spent by Government. (Actually, decimate - literally “to remove a tenth” – is an understatement. The Department of Health reduced its spending with the COI in 2010-11 by 82% compared with the year before.)

Let’s even accept the criticisms that you can level at the way the COI worked. It could be frustrating working with them – or trying to – though you can’t deny that partnering with all sorts of different companies they have brought some truly remarkable and effective work into the world over the years.

But is this change going to be for the better?

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said the changes “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.”

Anyone here ever find that the COI allowed spending to get out of hand?

Anyway, I’d love someone to tell me how closing down one central department and devolving its functions to a number of “hubs” is going to make communications better coordinated.

Let’s start at first principles. In the same paragraph, Francis Maude talks about “vital and cost effective marketing campaigns – such as those campaigns that save people’s lives” so it seems that he accepts that communication can be a Good Thing.

As he should.  When it’s done well, it works.  One example of ours:  British soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were almost three times as likely to die in a road traffic accident at home than the civilian population. We worked with the COI to deliver an important part of an extended campaign – a brilliant, darkly funny film that pulled no punches, spared no F-words and got under the skin of the squaddies on their way home from war.  It worked - road deaths fell by 60% across the three forces in the year following the campaign.

And while we would say this, wouldn’t we, there’s plenty of evidence that the Government agrees. Looking inside companies, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has launched the Employee Engagement Taskforce, and David McLeod and Nita Clarke are great ambassadors; their report from last year makes the case for engagement very clearly with a whole swathe of compelling evidence and case studies.

Their report, Engaging for Success, said “studies found that certain aspects of engagement seemed to explain more of the difference between the best and worst organisations than others. In particular, differentiating elements appear to be: communication (especially senior management having a clear vision of the organisation and this being expressed to staff, enabling them to understand how their role fitted in to the bigger picture).” According to Gallup, the cost of disengagement to the UK in 2008 was £60 billion.

So the Government is preaching engagement via communication to UK business, and promoting the UK communication sector (rightly) as a world leader - the IVCA’s initiatives in China have been supported by the UKTI and we at The Edge were asked to join the Prime Minister’s trip to the Middle East earlier this year as one of a party of UK leaders from the worlds of business and academia.

And yet the plans to replace the COI seems almost certain to deliver worse, less joined-up communication from the public sector.

  • Breaking the function into a number of hubs means that the sharing of best practice in commissioning will be much harder.
  • The market knowhow and expertise that the COI had built up over the years, bringing together projects of all sizes and types, will be lost.
  • A specialist communications procurement unit is set up under the leadership of Government Procurement. This should of course factor in effectiveness and longevity: value as well as cost.  But will they?  Unlikely if it involves on-line auctions!
  • It’s going to be harder for agencies to build long-term relationships with public sector clients, and hence get the deep knowledge of what they do and what makes them tick.

But it’s not just that the communication that is made will be worse. The COI had weight, and without it we fear that communication will be marginalised. And while people like us are always going to moan about this because it’s our livelihood, there’s a bigger problem. If you separate thinking about policy and thinking about the perception of policy, then the chances of the policy being successful are significantly diminished.

The conversations we have with our clients are primarily about how the audience are feeling when they sit down to watch a film, and how we want them to feel, think, see the world, when the film’s over.  Without that communication focus at the table when policy is being thought about, there’s a risk of the discussion leaving the real world further behind. Treating communication as an afterthought is a very bad idea, and not just for the communication.

So much of what government does is around trying to change people’s behaviour.  And this is difficult.  Visual communication is proven to be a powerful weapon in the arsenal.

Knife crime is down (some good news for a change) and that’s due to co-ordination of sentencing policy, policing strategy and effective communication.   There has been some brilliant work done in this area like the Met’s Take the Knife interactive film.  In Scotland the No Knives, Better Lives campaign has seen knife-carrying reduced by 35% in Inverclyde.

Get it right, and you get results.

Get it wrong, and you look foolish and out of touch.  When a Tory peer in a Lords debate stood up to say that the answer to the obesity epidemic “is simply to eat less", he gave us an object lesson in how to state the obvious and miss the point at the same time!

According to the Foresight report from 2007, weight problems will cost the UK economy £50 billion a year by 2050 if current trends continue.

What’s more likely to change people’s behaviour and make a dent in that frightening amount of money?

You could tell people to eat less in a clear and measured tone-of-voice, using words of one syllable (like when we speak to foreigners).

Or you could invest a couple of million quid on a carefully thought-out advertising campaign, an inspiring behaviour-change film and educational outreach initiatives?

Don’t just ask how much does it cost, ask how much does it cost not to address the issue?

There are plenty of examples where public sector bodies have invested reasonable sums in visual communication and got the results they wanted and in the process delivered clear, measurable value to the taxpayer.

Has money ever been wasted on poorly thought-out or procured communication campaigns? Yes.

So be more selective in the way you spend. Learn from experience. Design in what works and design out bad practice. But the current approach is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

We all understand that, for now, in many cases, Government spending on communication is frozen. But one day, not too long from now (we hope) the thaw will come. Someone in Government will realise that they need to commission something extraordinary to save lives, or change perceptions, or make a difference to the way we feel.  They’ll fight and claw their way to getting a budget together. And then they’ll find more barriers in their way  to spending that money well, to identifying the right partner and to getting communication that works, than before the Government took a slash and burn approach to reforming the COI.

Goodbye COI. Despite everything, we’ll miss you.


COI Image for web

'The Grim Reaper', produced by The Edge Picture Company with the COI