Feature

COI - The Bishop Years

COI's departing ad chief, Alan Bishop, reflects on leading the Government's communications agency, and looks forward to his role at the helm of the Southbank Centre.

Taking the opportunity to look back has made me realise how much can change in six years. Apart from the shifts in the political landscape - we had a different Prime Minister and war in Iraq was only a threat in 2002 - the media and government communications have changed in ways that were not entirely predictable.

These days, any number of issues or concerns inspire the public to call on the Government to "do something about it"and ask "why are they allowing this to happen?". As well as its traditional responsibility for the economy, defence, law and order, and public services, the Government is expected to tackle binge drinking, obesity, anti-social behaviour and global warming. So, government communications have had to come a long way from simply putting information out there. Now, we are increasingly using all the tools of marketing to produce programmes that are based on real insights, which shift attitudes and change behaviour. We have to measure their impact in robust terms, evaluating whether we are getting a return on investment, and establishing how much money is being saved in the public services.

In the marketing sphere, the way government works has become more joined up. I hope that this trend will continue. One of the means by which to maintain this is to ensure that COI is seen as a service to the rest of government, rather than an alternative. COI works best in partnership with its clients across government and the public sector. Getting the relationships right is important, but it's about getting structures right as well.

The foundation of the Government Communication Network in 2005 was a major step forward as it brought together all those involved in the process - press officers, marketing people across government departments and COI. The creation of the Government Strategic Marketing Advisory Board has provided new governance for this joining up. It brings together expert practitioners from the private sector and representatives from the departments and COI to make sure that we work together to raise standards and improve effectiveness.

Undoubtedly, the most exciting development during my time at COI has been how the digital revolution has affected the public's interaction with government. COI has changed its whole approach towards communication planning and explored the potential for what communications can do in future. Not only has digital activity transformed the way in which government communicates with people, but it has opened up a world of possibilities about how individuals carry out myriad public service transactions. From paying car tax to asking for a street light to be fixed, we can envisage a time when the majority of people will do most of their transactions with government online. Not only will this make citizens' lives easier but it will also help make government more efficient and, in the long run, save money.

This is epitomised in the foundation of Directgov - the website that provides access to public services all in one place. I was involved from the beginning in the whole Directgov project before it was even named. I still believe that if we treat people like customers who need to find their way around government, and understand their aspirations, needs and problems, then we will be best placed to communicate with them in the most effective way.

The industry has certainly shifted towards a greater focus on direct and interactive contact with people. But there have also been some surprises. Rumours of the death of traditional channels like television have been exaggerated. What we have actually seen is that TV viewing has slightly risen over time, and the power of the medium has maintained its strength. What has changed is the array of viewing options. Interactive doesn't only mean online. The Government needs to ensure that all interactive channels are effective, whether they take the form of digital communication, consultations or face-to-face contact. And interruptive doesn't only mean offline. We must consider how to exploit interruptive marketing better through online channels as they develop.

But although the way we work is changing all the time, the main challenge will always be the same for COI: to be at the forefront of developments in the industry, without forgetting the accountability that is essential when you are spending taxpayers' money. However, to maintain COI's position at the cutting edge, it must continue building new forms of partnership with colleagues across government. There are more cross-governmental projects and challenges that we all share, so we must be able to work together with shared resources and shared goals.

In my time here, COI has always had the same two balancing acts to pull off. How can we nurture the professional spirit of each of our many specialist communications disciplines, while at the same time joining them up and better integrating our service? How can we provide an effective centre for government communications, while supporting our diverse clients across government and the public sector? COI needs to make the best use of its unique, cross-governmental insight into a wide range of audiences in order to create, or help to create, the most engaging, motivating and efficient communication - and then to make it as easy as possible for everyone to use its services. COI must keep reviewing itself in order to show that it is constantly flexible, constantly innovative and constantly changing.

I will certainly be taking with me memories of two particular campaigns. Our involvement in London's bid to host the 2012 Olympics was personally satisfying for me and I treasure the thank you letter that we received from Seb Coe, the chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee.

There was a bit of sneering at the time, when it was pointed out that New York had got Steven Spielberg, Paris had Luc Besson and London just had COI. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I am very glad that we did the preparing for emergencies campaign. It was something I felt very strongly about because of a genuine need for people to be more alert.

Before joining COI, I spent almost three decades in advertising, cheerfully exploiting the arts. Now, I want to do my best to ensure that the Southbank Centre is the greatest arts hub in the world, particularly when the world comes to London in 2012.

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