UK coalition government ad cuts have created a worrying inability to communicate

The last year and a bit has been a turbulent time for the UK government’s communicators. It was always likely to be the case, with the coalition government wielding its new broom. A haze of resignations, slightly fewer appointments, U-Turns and the promise of gargantuan spending cuts invites the question, just what on earth is going on with government communications?

A bit of background is necessary. Convention dictates that the UK civil servants are apolitical. They serve whoever wins the election. The driver may change, but the ‘Rolls-Royce’ stays the same. That is until, jobs get slashed at the factory and budgets are reduced by 40-odd percent.

In the last full year of the Labour Government in 2009, the Central Office of Information (COI) outspent every other advertiser in the UK, with a budget of £540m. Despite purdah (a civil service activity ‘freeze’ during the general election) and a new Government wielding the axe, it was still the second largest in 2010.

Government spending on advertising, communications and PR was so high that the market responded by creating a cost-saving solution. WPP’s Group M created a special agency, M4C, to centralising the buying of all that media space.

To bean counters this all looked a sorry state of affairs. A tale of waste, spin and bloated civil service coffers. The current Chancellor George Osborne, no doubt desperate to prove his bean-counting credentials, could smell bandwagon. He promised to return government advertising spend to 1997 levels, around a 40 per cent cut.

But the COI didn’t just advertise for the sake of it. Its £26m anti-smoking campaign in 2008, they say, helped 171,000 people to kick the habit – at an estimated saving of £113m to the NHS.

Government communications is described as a simple policy lever, just like a public service reorganisation or a piece of statutory legislation. The more you spend on communications and the more you spend it well, the more effective that policy lever is. The coalition didn’t share this analysis.

Francis Maude was appointed Cabinet Office minister, the enforcer. In just two months at the helm of government communications he produced this analysis:

“The last government thought the right answer to everything was to launch an advertising campaign. Spending over half a billion pounds on communication when the Government’s finances were in such a mess is inexcusable.”

The first resignation was a slow burner. Few outside Whitehall would have noticed the announcement of Matt Tee’s departure, the permanent secretary of government communications, in November 2010. But his telling internal resignation letter explained that a) he would not be replaced and b) his last act would be to conduct a review of direct government communications and the COI, to be published in this March.

Things started to simmer in December, when deputy CEO of the COI, Peter Buchanan walked out of the door. The ad industry veteran, known as a thoroughly decent man, left with 16 years of institutional knowledge. He wasn’t replaced.

The heat was turned up over Christmas, as the government were forced to re-launch the ‘Catch it, bin it, kill it’ advertising campaign – previously banned in the cull of ‘inexcusable’ public service advertising. It turned out that raising awareness of flu helped people to avoid it.

Bubbling now, the pressure (albeit of a very different nature) was too much for Andy Coulson. Downing Street’s communications director resigned in the midst of the phone-hacking scandal. Hewn from the fire-pit of tabloid journalism, his replacement is not. Intelligent and able though he is, Craig Oliver is a scarf-wearing BBC executive.

Popular adman Mark Lund joined the hordes of talented executives leaving government communications in March to set up a new ad agency, Now. He left around the time that his and Matt Tee’s long-awaited review was published.

The Rolls-Royce is now a clattering train.

Francis Maude has yet to respond to Tee’s report, but if the proposals are accepted the COI will just about survive, in a much smaller capacity. Crucially, the report rejected David Cameron communications guru Steve Hilton’s ‘Ad Council’ idea and backed calls for a smarter partnership between industry and the state.

As with any business, huge cuts in budget and staff can often make the best people leave, fostering frustration and drift amongst the rest. It would appear that government communications is no exception. As recently as yesterday, Downing Street’s head of digital communications Rishi Saha walked out to join a Dubai-based public relations consultancy, as speculation mounts that Steve Hilton is on his way out.

What happens next depends largely on the way Maude responds over the next few months. He has won the ideological battle, but the practical challenges are immense.

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About James Charlton

James is a politics graduate who has worked in the parliamentary office of two Government ministers, and more recently as a lobbyist for the advertising industry. He is now an aspirant journalist, tweeting at @jamescharlo.