According to the Government Communications Network (GCN):
Communication is an integral part of government. The public need to know about their rights and duties as well as have accurate information about public services and government policies that affect their daily lives. Effective communication is essential for both the public and the government.
In 2001, the UK government took over as the biggest single advertising spender in the country. Previously it had been a closely-fought battle between Unilever and Procter & Gamble1. This article explores the history behind the agency responsible for most of current government advertising and marketing spending – the Central Office of Information (COI)
The early years
The first dedicated publicity unit was set up by the Post Office (then a government department) in the 1850s. The Postmaster-General's reasons were announced as a 'this new way of bringing the activities of the Post Office to public and Parliamentary notice' trying to address the public's 'imperfect knowledge' of his organisation. In 1876 the unit's first wide-scale publicity campaign was carried out, in which a million handbills were issued to alert the public to the virtues of government savings schemes, life insurance and annuities.
In 1912, Lloyd George ordered a corps of lecturers to tour the country for employers and workers, when he realised that the success of the new National Insurance scheme depended on public understanding.
First World War
During the First World War the UK government set up an Information Advisory Committee, which was responsible for providing the public with war-related information. The Home Office set up an Information Bureau, which in 1918 consolidated with various other Whitehall units into a Ministry of Information. This was disbanded shortly after the war, however, and moved back into various Whitehall Departments.
Between the wars
In 1926 there was a General Strike, which meant that there was an absence of newspapers, the hitherto most important communications channel. While the BBC had only been incorporated shortly before, it resisted pressure to become a government mouthpiece. This lead to Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, trying to produce a government newspaper, the British Gazette. He probably felt qualified having been a war correspondent for the Morning Post, reporting on the Boer War in South Africa. However, the experiment was not a success and has never been repeated in the UK. During the 1930s and 1940s, departmental Press Offices witnessed a shift from the simple role of answering enquiries to a more deliberate and proactive information policy. In 1932, the first 10 Downing Street Chief Press Secretary was appointed.
Second World War
A second Ministry of Information was created in 1939 to meet the challenges of the war and the changing media landscape – the rise of cinema, radio and popular journalism. The Ministry had the enormous job of disseminating information and mobilising opinion to help the war effort. The communications included such things as what to do in an air-raid, information about rationing and how to make the best use of fuel and food.
The Ministry had 7,600 staff by 1944 (there were also a further 1,700 staff with similar duties employed by other Departments elsewhere). However, the government decided that there was no further need for the Ministry after the war; so it was morphed into COI, as a non-ministerial department.
Any government department wanting to run publicity campaigns used COI, which had all the necessary expertise and experience, and the organisation was funded by the Allied Vote (that is directly from central funds). The advantage of this approach, which still holds true today, is that all the government spend is aggregated. This affords the negotiation of heavy discounts on supplies of everything from paper to air time.
Late 20th Century
In the 1980s the Thatcher government sought to streamline the state, introduce competition and privatise national providers. COI escaped privatisation, but had to accept the balance of power shifting away from it. Funds were devolved to the individual Whitehall departments, which then had the choice whether to use COI, to build up their own in-house specialists in marketing and publicity or to use the private sector.
COI became a trading fund and slightly changed its status to an Executive Agency, which meant it has to break even. The chief executive still reports to - and meet targets set by - a minister of the Cabinet Office.
The Blair government, which took power in 1997, marked a change in approach to public communication. Political appointees or 'special advisers' were brought in to take charge of the communication process and the messages for public consumption released via the press – also known as 'spin'. The infamous Alastair Campbell, at the centre of all this, and a close ally to Tony Blair, was given the title of 'spin doctor-in-chief' by the press. Government communication was previously mainly managed by civil servants, who have a code of conduct of impartiality to follow, which does not allow government advertising (which is paid for by tax-payers) to promote party political messages.
Early 21st century
The changing role for COI was highlighted by the arrival of new chief executive Carol Fisher, whose background was in marketing. She transformed the agency into a model full-service communications agency, but with some extras - such as a strategic consultancy team; and rebranded the agency COI Communications2. She also oversaw a tripling of the amount spent on advertising, which reached £192m in 2001 (also an election year).
As an executive agency COI's remit is analysed every five years by a Quinquennial Review. In 2001 such a review concluded that the News Distribution Service should be taken out of the remit of COI (this was then branded the Government News Network) and moved GICS in the Cabinet Office to form the GCN.
The changing relationship between COI and the party political centre was put under further strain when Fisher was asked to take on an additional role. This was to advise on all government marketing and for this report directly to Alastair Campbell. This never really amounted to much in the end as Carol Fisher resigned from COI in 2002.
Alan Bishop took over as chief executive at the beginning of 2003. His previous position, as chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, meant that COI's future was firmly in the marketing game.
Meanwhile, because of the growing press and public disquiet about the politicisation of government communications and the role of the special advisers3, an independent review was set up. Bob Phillis, Chief Executive of the Guardian Media Group plc, chaired the review and the interim conclusions were published in September 2003 and the final report in January 2004. This made a wide range of recommendations including appointing a very high-ranking civil servant (Permanent Secretary) to coordinate government wide communications, disband the GICS, changes to how the media are briefed and clearer rules for release of statistics. Howell James was appointed to this post4, not to the satisfaction of everyone - as he came from outside the civil service and therefore was not the neutral figure Phillis had envisaged.
The Phillis report endorsed COI's position and role, and Bishop took the opportunity to reshape the agency into a more customer-focused organisation, with the vision of being the government's "centre of marketing excellence".
In 2004 the GNN rejoined COI, using the Phillis report as justification. Then a year later Directgov and the Media Monitoring Unit both moved out of the Cabinet Office to also become part of COI. The Directgov move was significant, as it gave COI a service that communicated directly with the public for the first time.
2006 marked the 60th anniversary of COI. In recognition of this National Archives hosts an online Public Information Films Exhibition and the British Film Institute hosts film screenings of archive material during September and October.
COI structure and services
COI offer the full range of communication services, covering everything from proof-reading/editorial services; through websites, radio and television; to live events and direct marketing. By mid-2006 COI had around 700 employees and structured around nine specialist delivery units plus GNN, Directgov and Media Monitoring.
- Client Account Team: at the centre of the organisation this team co-ordinates the projects for each of the departments/agencies that use COI
- Central Services: including IT, Facilities Management and Administration teams
- Broadcast: this incorporates the TV and radio units; these organise the production and distribution of public service announcements.
- Digital Media: this team has a framework of suppliers, from which it procures website development, specialist, strategic and testing services, while offering consulting, online advertising and project management services directly to clients.
- Direct and Relationship Marketing: this team help clients organise targeted mailshots, handle citizen responses/relationships (using call centres, for example) and other direct marketing activities.
- Events: this team organises event of all sizes from conferences to roadshows around the country.
- Media and Advertising Services: this team handles the paid for TV advertisements (such as public sector recruitment)
- PR and Sponsorship: handles COI's press and clients' campaigns both in-house and through a framework of suppliers.
- Publications: this team has a large framework of creative suppliers and an in-house team to produce government information leaflets, department/agency annual reports, education materials, official reports and also procures print and distribution services.
- Research: this team procures and manages research for clients.
- Strategic Consultancy: this team help clients sort out business problems by consultation and analysis.
- Directgov: this brings together the widest range of public service information and services online and supports the Transformational Government Agenda.
- GNN: has offices around the country to deliver regional and local media handling and support to clients.
- Media Monitoring Unit: monitors the media coverage of stories relating to government policy.