UK coalition axes COI information service – and civil servant in charge of review asks why?

The cost-cutting fanatics in the UK coalition government, headed by cabinet office minister Francis Maude, have finally axed the COI, the government information body that was Britain’s largest advertiser just two years ago.

Here’s what they say:

The reform of the organisation of Government communications has been announced today by Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

The changes, which will lead to the closure of the Central Office of Information (COI), will further improve the effectiveness and efficiency of government communications.

They follow the introduction of spending controls on advertising and marketing spend in June last year, which has led to a 68% reduction in external spend through COI from £532m in 2009/10 to an estimated £168m in 2010/11. Government departments have reduced their number of in-house communications staff by around a quarter, and their budgets by half.

The reforms are designed to consolidate those reductions, while ensuring that the remaining spend and activity on advertising and marketing is better coordinated and executed. The Government remains committed to continuing to support essential communications campaigns, such as health and recruitment to the armed services.

The changes will:

strengthen central coordination, prioritisation and strategic planning of communications across government

put in place a new governance structure to increase accountability and transparency and to drive collective responsibility. This will include the appointment of an Executive Director, and the establishment of a Communications Delivery Board

create a specialist communications procurement unit under the leadership of the Government Procurement

enable government to explore how it can best capitalise on the capability which exists in communications across government, through a programme of reviews
explore the development of a shared communications delivery pool for certain specialist services; and for a small number of specialist marketing hubs.

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.”

These proposals constitute the Government’s response to the former Permanent Secretary for Government Communication’s Review of Government Direct Communication and the Role of COI which was published in March 2011.


Matt Tee, the former permanent secretary referred to by Maude and whose review set off this process, Tweeted today: “I might have a view on the Government’s response to my COI review if anyone at Cabinet Office had had the decency to send it to me…”

So hardly happy bunnies all round.

Is this a wise move?

The COI was undoubtedly spending too much money, around £500m a year on all sorts of marketing stuff, but spending it pretty wisely.

And the current government, which is bound to become even more unpopular as Britons find themselves increasingly squeezed by inflation and wage cuts, may wish it had a smooth machine to put out its own message.

The current fun and games in Libya has already cost £250m by the Government’s own admission, so you can double that in reality.

So scrapping the COI is small beer in terms of saving GB from its creditors.

We wait to see what the executive director of the new communications delivery board will deliver in the COI’s place. And who will it be?

Not a representative from Irish marcoms group WPP surely?

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.