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Plans to scrap the COI reflect the changing landscape

The Cabinet Office's recommendation to scrap the Central Office of Information (COI) today forms part of a major overhaul of current communications and reflects a major step-change in Government strategy.

Plans to scrap the COI reflect the changing landscape

Plans to scrap the COI reflect the changing landscape

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From the outset, the coalition Government has placed the emphasis on two new policies: to reduce the deficit and the desire for a smaller role for government.

The COI’s activity is generally based around informing people about services or initiatives, to raise or maintain awareness about important issues and, more recently, to encourage people to adapt their behaviours.

Historically the Government has strived to ‘own’ all of its marketing activity in order to ensure tight management of the messages and of the media through which they were channelled.

In 2009/10 the total cost of communications totalled £1.01 billion, of which £540 million was direct communication activity through COI, with £211 million spent on advertising and £329 million estimated staffing costs.

Some 82% of the total spend on advertising was concentrated in the top 10 departments and arm’s-length bodies (ALBs), with the majority (73%) flowing through central communication teams.

In May 2010, a freeze was introduced on marketing and advertising activity. As a result, the annual volume of communication activity commissioned through COI fell to £125 million.

In the second half of 2010, COI reacted by reducing staff numbers by 40% from 737 to 450, and operating costs by 43% from £63 million to £36 million.

Established in 1946, after the demise of the wartime Ministry of Information,
the COI has been positioned as a non-ministerial department and an executive agency of the Cabinet Office.

As a trading fund, COI has no budget of its own but channelled the budgets for marketing and communication activity within 450 government departments, executive agencies, local authorities and wider public sector bodies.

The new Government policy unveiled today envisages fewer but more effective communications with a greater role for partners, both civic and commercial.

Part of Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society" initiative involves asking the commercial terrestrial TV broadcasters to provide a daily "Community Minute" of editorial airtime.

The drivers laid out in the report today (18 March) will result in smaller Government communication budgets and staff numbers and will also require central communicators to work in different ways and apply skills more effectively.

In the report by Matt Tee, permanent secretary for Government Communication, this is described as doing "better for less".

The emphasis has now been placed on focusing on priority issues and audiences, not departments, to build new relationships and valuable partnerships, to improve effectiveness through better evaluation and insight, and to focus relentlessly on value for money and return on marketing investment.

Time will tell how effective this new approach will be in reducing and sustaining Government communication.

Teeman’s report concludes: "In conducting the review, it has become clear that what is required is not just a solution regarding the future of COI, but a different approach to government direct communication.

"While the reductions in public expenditure are one driver of this, it is also clear that some government direct communication has been unrelated to an overall sense of government priorities; has not always been based on the best evidence; has lacked good measures of impact or effectiveness; and has used a media mix which is skewed towards higher cost, less targeted channels.

"All of these need to be addressed in a new approach."

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