2 July 2012
The COI was established in 1946 and was very efficient, hitting the targets set for it by successive governments. It became renowned for its iconic public information films which stressed the culture and concerns of the nation, such as the famous ‘iceberg’ HIV/AIDS ads.
COI worked across government supporting departments with its communications. Although there is no doubt its trading reduced in the past year because of the government’s decision to cease advertising and reduce marketing, its work still amounted to £168 million with sufficient business for about 200 staff. In the future there will be no choice but for departments and agencies to contract out communications work at a cost of probably three times that of the COI.
In 2010 staff numbers were reduced from 750 to 450, through a mixture of voluntary and compulsory redundancies, intended to make the organisation the right size for the future. However, on the back of a review last year, a decision was taken behind closed doors at ministerial level to close COI. No business case was ever disclosed. The remaining 400 staff faced redundancy with only 80-100 found roles within government communications.
PCS rep Zack Gibbs, who worked at the COI for 40 years, said: “This government’s aim is to find a cheaper way of getting over messages to people but at the moment the evidence is that those cheaper ways are not very effective.”
Since its inception the COI has paid for itself four times over annually. At a time when the government is attempting to build expertise in procurement, taking away that expertise within COI makes little sense.
PCS argued that it was important government communications are professional and impartial, and have the institutional memory from serving different administrations. The union fears the COI’s abolition means the media and electorate will have to rely on Malcolm Tucker-style spin doctors for all information about government policies. Its functions have been subsumed into the Cabinet Office.
The PCS campaign said the closure of the National School of Government was unnecessary and short-sighted, and could damage the credibility and reputation of the civil service.
The school in Berkshire, previously called the Civil Service College, was established in June 1970 as the leading provider of training for civil servants at all grades – a key foundation stone in maintaining the principles of an independent, professional civil service. It closed at the end of March with the loss of about 200 jobs.
PCS stressed the importance of high quality, well-trained, professional public servants who can provide and promote high standards.
“With the school's closure we fear increased outsourcing of provision and the narrowing of the training available,” said Charlotte Revely, former programme director and PCS branch chair. “The government says it wants to move towards more electronic learning, but we are very sceptical that this can deliver the quality, complexity and subtlety of development needed for civil servants to be able to carry out their roles in what is a rapidly-changing environment.”
Under any e-learning system there would need to be stringent quality assurance and training to make sure that it was followed up in the workplace. Without this the suspicion remains that this is purely a cost-cutting exercise to deliver training on the cheap, and this can only be bad news for the civil service and government. In addition are PFI costs estimated at £2.3 million for the next five years.
PCS campaigned hard to avoid compulsory redundancies and see that opportunities were found for staff who did not want to leave the civil service and wider public sector.
• Watch the ITV documentary on the COI