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Communications disease

Communications disease

During this year’s conference season the Liberal Democrats quite rightly identified government waste as a target and in particular £4 billion of savings that could be made by abolishing the DTI, cutting the number of ministers from 90 to 60 and purging spin doctors. Their Treasury spokesman, Matthew Taylor, cited the 37 press officers in the Home Office, the 23 press officers in the ODPM and the 18 press officers in the Cabinet Office as examples of so-called communications departments that could stand slimming down. Matthew Taylor is of course only scratching the surface. He really does not get the scale of the problem.

Only last Sunday the Sunday Times carried a job advert offering a six figure salary for a new Permanent Secretary for Government Communications. Apparently, this is a new strategic role at the heart of government. This person will act as Head of Profession for all five channels of communications, marketing and related functions. So now the thousands of graduates of crap marketing degree courses who eke out their livings by promoting State services that we have no choice about using will have a champion at the “highest level”. God help us.

Is this purely a central government phenomenon? Last week the local Tories pushed a leaflet through my door. It told how the London Borough of Ealing has increased its publicity budget by 37% in two years. I decided to check out a few authorities. Ealing (Labour), a London borough, spends £3 million per annum or 1% of its revenue spending. West Sussex (Conservative), where my parents live, again spends £3 million but this is only 0.5% of its much larger revenue spending as a county council. In Tony Blair’s Sedgefield (Labour) only £235,000 is spent on publicity but this is 1.5% of its spending being a tiny district council.

With 353 local authorities in England and a further 80 in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland let’s suppose that they spend about £1 million each on publicity. That is almost £0.5 billion of spending right there.

The good news from local government is that the Tory’s Local Government Act of 1986 requires them to keep track of and publish their publicity spending so local authorities are at least transparent in this area.

Nowhere is the bogus communications culture more deeply embedded than in the NHS. Last week at my rowing club in Hammersmith I picked up a copy of the 2002/3 Annual Report of the Hammersmith and Fulham Primary Care Trust. I guess as a local voluntary body we were sent a copy as stakeholders or something? Very expensive. Not very informative. Beautifully designed and produced by The Design Studio, whoever they are. 27 specially commissioned photos including the obligatory mug shots of unphotogenic management types. Fatuous captions such as: “young and old need healthcare”, “children are at risk from accidents and disease”, “attracting local people to the NHS” and “workshops let staff have their say”. If the budget for this project was any less than £50,000 I would be very surprised. Informative? No, there was no breakdown of expenditure.

A quick trip around NHS websites reveals that there are 300 primary care trusts, 170 acute and specialist trusts, 31 ambulance trusts, 81 mental health trusts, 28 strategic health authorities, 20 special health authorities and 8 care trusts. Are they all doing the same thing? Let’s see. I went to look at two randomly chosen organisations.

NHS Litigation Authority. 31 pages of sober 2 colour design from Thomas McGurk Ltd, 9 photos of more plain, middle-aged manager types. Cheaper than some but what is wrong with a word processed document?

The Northumberland Care Trust goes for full colour, with 37 colour photos, decorated with specially commissioned artwork. Well pricey.

Let’s be charitable and say that the average cost of these reports is £25,000. Across the 638 trusts and authorities listed above, and excluding all of the Whitehall-based bits of the Department of Health, we get a spend of £16 million for reports that no-one reads, filled with superfluous photos, giving no proper breakdown of expenditure.

Finally, a last example exposed again by the job ads. In September the National Institute of Clinical Excellence were looking for an External Affairs Director. Passing over the fact that they think that it is appropriate to have offices in the Strand we find that a salary of £90K is offered for someone to lead a team of 22 “professionals” and manage a budget of £3 million. Weep.

This year the State is planning to spend £5.2 billion more on the NHS than it did last year. How much of this is being sluiced down the drain in communications?

In the private sector the annual report has developed as a way of communicating not only with shareholders, who are the major audience for this document, but also customers and staff, for whom it has become an annual review. Especially in business-to-business markets the annual report becomes a selling document that tries to establish the organisation described as financially sound and a suitable business partner.

State bodies have no shareholders and no amount of talking about stakeholders can justify this expenditure. I am quite sure that concerned citizens, local councillors, MPs and civil servants can read word-processed documents cheaply reproduced on laser printers and photocopiers. Are their attention spans really so short that they need artwork, photos and design to amuse them?

With the communications phenomenon the State manages to give us the worst of both worlds. We tolerate excessive spending on promotion in the private sector because companies competing in any market segment need to explain the comparative strengths of their offering. This is where the communications culture comes from. The users of public sector services have little choice about the service provider. We not only get producer interest dominated services that do not benefit from the discipline of competition but then we have to pay for the promotional overheads that are typical of the private sector as well. How mad is that?

Perhaps the first job of Tony Blair’s new Permanent Secretary should be to get a handle on all of this spending and identify ways it can be reduced. Then he or she can quickly make themselves redundant.