EDITORIAL: DoT's about turn is a lesson in futility

On the face of it, the lessons from the period in which the Department of Transport ran its own advertising show free of COI Communications control are hard to see.

It's doubtful the exercise did much damage - except to the egos of the powerful personalities who precipitated the split - or cost taxpayers excessive amounts of cash. But neither did it prove very much.

Nevertheless, last week's news that a new spirit of reconciliation now prevails between the warring parties, resulting in the DoT coming back under COI's umbrella, has raised issues that both need to examine.

The most obvious one is the need to stop such unseemly public squabbles that can only undermine confidence in the Government's information machine.

Charles Skinner, the DoT's director of communications, was the irresistible force, Carol Fisher, the then COI chief executive, the immovable object.

Had both been prepared to show a little humility, a lot of agencies wouldn't have had to endure the unsettling experience of being caught in the crossfire and the constant worry that their standing with COI might be damaged by working for a breakaway DoT.

A major question posed by the DoT's unilateral declaration of independence is whether COI should have seen it coming. The DoT has a long tradition of prolific advertising and was one of the first government departments to show its independent streak by dealing directly with agencies rather than COI for its TV production.

What's more, insiders suggest the DoT had a festering concern that the quality of advice it was receiving from COI wasn't a match for its substantial output of work.

In the end, the DoT's action failed to persuade other government departments to follow suit and spark a mass exodus that would have put COI's future in jeopardy.

However, it did succeed in giving COI a timely wake-up call, forcing it to ask whether it was becoming complacent and to face the fact that, like its roster agencies, it must not forget it is in the business of client service.

Yet it's also been a sobering experience for the DoT. It seems to have gained very little from its decision to go it alone and will hopefully have learned that running a large roster isn't as easy as it thought.

Not only do "club" agencies not take kindly to having to pitch for every DoT project but those agencies on the roster not yet assigned any business are unlikely to regard it as a client to die for.

If the whole sorry affair proves anything, it's that nobody gains when common sense and the need for accountability is eclipsed by a battle of wills.