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So farewell then, CoI…and why the squirrels are happy

So farewell then, Central Office of Information. It had few friends, and last year’s review by then Permanent Secretary for Communications Matt Tee effectively signaled its demise, even if his proposal did involve recreating a leaner, fitter version. This has been ignored and now the plans go even further, abolishing CoI from next April and handing power, responsibility and budgets for advertising and PR back to government departments.

So is this an endorsement of a kind of civil service ‘localism’, or a green light for a communications free-for-all? On one level it fits with the Prime Minister’s stated approach to be hands off when it comes to the detail of how Ministers and their departments deliver. However, as he has been discovering, the devil is in the detail, both at Prime Minister’s Questions and in the media, where he is often to be found on the back foot when his ministers do something unpopular. U turns may be embarrassing for the government but they are also expensive to put right in communications terms.

Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude has said that the proposals ‘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.’ How this will happen in a much more decentralised model is hard to see especially because there will only be a small residual procurement team at the centre.

Every corporate communications director knows that departments are skilled at disguising budgets and spend. They are more effective than squirrels at storing away resources to tide them through the hard times. Handing over the power may mean that the Government can say that central communications spending is down, but it’s unlikely to result in more transparent or cheaper communications across the board.

There will be a communications delivery board chaired by ministers and made up of departmental communications directors to oversee strategy and avoid duplication. In my experience, this is a very ineffective way to control either activity or spend because no-one on these committees is willing to challenge anyone else’s vested interests, for fear of exposing their own. It’s usually a compromise model tried by organisations before they bite the bullet and centralise communications altogether. This time the direction has been reversed, with Matt Tee’s post having been abolished and replaced with the delivery board. How long before it withers on the vine?

Wherever they sit, budgets are currently under pressure. But over the life of any Government there is always communications ‘mission creep’, with spending and activity rising as elections approach. So the experienced consultants and PR firms will now be busy building and rebuilding relationships with departmental communications directors. This will include those interested in advertising, PR and recruitment, as the CoI interim management arm Gov Gap will also presumably disappear too.

The Big Society – an idea already past its sell by date?

The Big Society has hit the headlines again this week, but not in a positive way. There is reported concern from Steve Hilton, Number 10’s director of strategy, and Philip Blond, head of the think tank ResPublica, that the message is not getting across to voters. The Daily Mirror reported that Tory MPs are getting the knives out for Steve Hilton, with one Tory MP reported as saying

“Hilton comes up with sunny, innovative ideas but that is just 10% of government, the other 90% is implementation. We have huge radical ideas but no idea of the hard grind of implementation.”

There are a numbers of factors at play here. The news agenda has been cuts, cuts, all the way. Charities, one of the cornerstones of the Big Society initiative, are facing big reductions in funding themselves, while volunteering figures are dropping. Now Nick Hurd, Third Sector Minister, has challenged MPs and party activists to come up with ideas to make the Big Society a success. Some might say that this is evidence that the policy is on its way out.

From a communications perspective, there are three challenges:

Consistency of message: The Big Society label has become a catch-all rather than a defining message. Depending on who you talk to, it can cover anything from localism to voluntary sector funding to taking over the local village pub. It therefore means everything and nothing. Polling for the RSA by Ipsos Mori at the end of last year found over half the population hadn’t even heard of the term. So the challenge for the Coalition now is to narrow the focus of the Big Society and reinforce this consistently.

Authenticity: Even if the message became clearer, there is a credibility gap at the moment. Arguing that charities and individuals can take the strain against an unrelenting news agenda of cuts, inflation and an ever noisier opposition, is near impossible. People’s experience simply doesn’t chime with what they are hearing from Government. As outgoing CBI Director General Richard Lambert said this week, there isn’t a clear vision from the Coalition.  The challenge now is to place the Big Society within a narrative that explains to people where they can play their part, and why.

Engagement: As all good communicators know, broadcasting the message is only part of the deal. The Big Society requires a much higher level of engagement to persuade people to give up significant amounts of time for the good of their community. At the moment, many citizens are actively engaged in protest mode against cuts in funding. Central Government is not helping itself by casting Local Government as the inefficient villain of the piece. To truly bring residents into discussions about a positive future, central and local government need to work together in engaging and supporting those still willing to give the Big Society concept a go.

Whoever the Tories select to replace Andy Coulson they will have their work cut out to convince the public the Big Society means anything real to them or their lives. And the danger for the Government is that in the absence of any positive constructive agenda they become merely the Government of cuts.

Job hunting in 2011 – fortune favours the brave

January is typically when people get back to work, take a look around and say: “This is the year I’m going to find a new job”. In 2011, they might not have a choice. Given the current market conditions, job hunting can seem like a waste of time. If everyone is being made redundant, then surely that shows there are no jobs out there?

Change, however major or unwelcome, always brings opportunity. There are lots of people in the public sector jobs market at the moment. More will join them over the next three months. But there will also be many exiting the sector, through retirement deals and redundancy packages. There will be skills gaps and it’s important to remember that good people will always be in demand.

Job seekers in a recession can often come across as war weary – their current job might be one that they have held for a long time, or they may have been through bruising restructuring and redundancy situations. To be a good prospect for an employer you have to convey energy and enthusiasm, not desperation and cynicism so if you’re looking for a new job, step forward confidently. If you don’t feel confident, fake it, you’ll still improve your job prospects.

The next step is to get your CV up to scratch. Keep it short (two or three pages maximum) and treat your CV like a newspaper – put the most important information on the front page.

There are different views among recruiters about whether skills-based or achievement-based CVs are better. The problem with the skills-based approach is that it can read as rather generic waffle. In a competitive market, it’s better to highlight achievements and to emphasise outcomes rather than just outputs. What actually changed as a result of your work?

Then highlight those of your key skills that will be most in demand over the next year. We’ve been through post-election confusion, fear of spending and identification of cuts. This year heralds implementation of cuts but also service transformation and delivery of a pretty hefty new policy agenda. So excellent skills in project and change management alongside strategic flair and demonstrable ability to deliver results will be at a premium.

We all had a good laugh at Stuart “The Brand” Baggs on The Apprentice last year, but he had it right on one score. On the jobs market, you are a brand whether you like it or not. If you baulk at this, just make sure you can answer some obvious questions. What five words would you use to describe yourself? What makes you stand out from other good candidates for a job? You’re going to have to project these qualities at interview so if it’s a long time since you’ve had a formal job interview, get some one-to-one training now. Don’t leave it to the day itself to find out you’re actually very rusty.

If you don’t have good networks, now is the time to develop them. Make maximum use of social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Be active in these networks and share useful information with others. Think about how your online brand is projected – your profile, photograph and tone of communication. And always apply the Private Eye rule – never write anything down that you wouldn’t be happy seeing reported back about you.

For face to face networking – at conferences, professional groups, social events – make sure you have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready. This is a concise statement of who you are and what you’re about, short enough to be delivered in an elevator ride. Practise it until it feels natural and back it up with a ready supply of business cards.

Finally, get on the radar of key recruitment consultants in your chosen field. We are a great source of help, from advice on your CV through to resources such as free guides and events. We know the market better than anyone, so calling us before we call you shows you’re serious about finding that new role in 2011.

This blogpost was originally written for the Guardian Professional Local Government Network. Find our more and sign up at http://www.guardian.co.uk/local-government-network

Is the big freeze starting to thaw?

Recent announcements have given an indication that the freeze on public sector marketing and recruitment spend is beginning to thaw. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has now reinstated the £1m flu immunisation campaign which was cancelled in Autumn 2010. A review of support to the Deputy Prime Minister by the Cabinet Secretary has suggested that Nick Clegg will soon get his own dedicated PR chief. And the Department for Education is advertising for a £100k head of communications.

Alongside this, the Conservative Party and Downing Street have conducted a reshuffle of their senior communications people, partly in response to the Labour Party’s bolstering of Ed Miliband’s press team.

All very different to last year, when a public sector communications professional was about as welcome as a kangaroo’s eyeball on Gillian McKeith’s dinner plate.

What’s shifted? Some of it can be put down to Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase, ‘events dear, boy, events’. Hospitals full of wheezing pensioners, high profile outrage at cuts to school sport funding and free books for children, and Nick Clegg’s lightning journey from hero to zero have all played their part in demanding a stronger reactive communications response.

More strategically, there is recognition that this is the year of implementation, not just of cuts but also of a raft of new policy commitments. Special interest groups, charities, trade unions and others are all gearing up to fight their corner on the cuts. And most members of the public are still blissfully unaware of key policy changes coming soon to services such as health and criminal justice. All this at a time when there will be some loss of expertise in the public sector as experienced, senior people take advantage of retirement and redundancy packages.

Our prediction for 2011 is that excellent communications professionals will be in increasing demand in the public sector, particularly if they are resilient, experienced change managers with a good strategic overview.

Let’s not get too giddy. Most spending will have to come from within existing resources and a strong business case will have to be made. On the interim market, we expect demand to be strong, but trading conditions to be challenging. Clients are expecting a lot for their money. There is pressure on day rates, and interims are expected to hit the ground running and manage heavy workloads.

So a thaw rather than an outbreak of glorious sunshine, but it looks as though 2011 could be a little less chilly if you’re an ambitious communications professional.

Resignations and rearguard actions

Scottish Transport Minister Stewart Stephenson handed in his resignation at the weekend. Unwisely, he had told Newsnight Scotland that there had been a ‘first class’ response to recent extreme weather conditions, a comment that provoked derision from the public and the threat of a vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament this week.

Mr Stephenson gave his main reason for resignation as the fact that he had not done enough to inform members of the public, who had been caught up in a ‘difficult and frightening set of circumstances’.

Keeping people informed has got a bad press recently. Town hall ‘Pravdas’ are being restricted and press officers and marketing experts are deemed unnecessary luxuries in the age of austerity. On a national level, we have seen the Coalition government struggle to get its message across on big issues such as tuition fees.

Last week, Ministers fought a rearguard action on the airwaves as Parliament Square burned and royals got poked with sticks. It’s not a good look. Yet even the Daily Mail’s online vote about whether readers still support the students after the violence is today running at 76% in favour of the students.

Also last week, Ipsos MORI held its end of year event in Vince Cable’s departmental offices. The Secretary of State gave his apologies as he was involved in last minute negotiations on the tuition fees vote. The general consensus from speakers was that many members of the public think the cuts have already happened and are probably unprepared for what will come in 2011.

So as we digest the local government financial settlement and publication of the localism bill later today, it’s clear that getting the public onside has to be a priority. The settlement will be tough, and localism is not an easy concept to explain to the average punter. Politicians simply telling the electorate that this is all good for them is not credible. We need a strategic approach that engages, informs and influences the public, delivered by senior communications professionals who know what works. Anything else may turn out to be a very false economy…