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Central Office of dis-information?

With the departure of Matt Tee, the permanent secretary government communications, after a review of the service, David Walker asks what the future holds for publicity-seeking Whitehall departments
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Announcing his departure from the Central Office of Information (COI), Matt Tee last week said he was "proud to have led government communications through a time of major change as the civil service made the successful transition to a new coalition government".

One would expect the permanent secretary of government communications to be a connoisseur of official language so it's worth dwelling on that phrase "major change".

Meltdown

Tee, permanent secretary government communications, is leaving the service in a state of meltdown (a much-used phrase this autumn). Staff are leaving in droves; the COI is at death's door; coordination is a lost art; and the Cabinet Office is applying its ban on marketing spending with counter-productive zeal, thwarting the government's own programmes in health, science, business and "behaviour change".

None of that is Tee's fault. Administratively experienced and politically savvy, his was a refreshing appointment in late 2008, bringing experience in regulatory bodies, the Department of Health, chief executive of NHS Direct and, in the private sector, Dr Foster. He moved quickly to give government communications a more corporate feel and reached out to professional communicators in local government, the NHS and the peripheral public sector.

But the present government, like its predecessor, is tempted by the proposition that in the internet age professional communications are superfluous and that a web post is as good as a press release. Tee has had to contend with Sir Tim Berners-Lee and, more recently, Martha Lane Fox effectively telling ministers the web is all they need.

Death notice

Before he goes, Tee is reviewing the role of the COI and the "coordination of cross-department marketing and communications". The first could be a polite form of death notice. The COI is not a quango, but minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude is evidently tempted by a second round of culling of agencies, several of which are in his bailiwick, including both the COI and the National School of Government. Both could be cut by next Easter.

Tee is not going to be replaced at permanent secretary rank and it feels as if government press and communications work, which of course will continue inside departments, faces a few years of desuetude. Its time will come again, because governments always rediscover the virtues of PR and communications as elections loom and their poll ratings slip.

In a recent internal message, Tee talked of a greater focus on "audiences rather than departmental brands", which is puzzling when departments are more silo-like than ever and joined up government is yesterday's news. Tee said government communications is "well placed to justify the resource we know it deserves" but added, realistically if despairingly, "the argument still needs to be made".

David Walker is contributing editor to Guardian Public

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