If we were playing a game of Just A Minute with the political response to the COVID pandemic, the UK government would have been stopped multiple times for hesitation, repetition and deviation. The phrase ‘this is a war’ would be most likely to stop the speaker in their tracks due to repetition. And yet, with all of the comparisons to war being made, the UK government is missing one of its most useful tools in the wartime toolbox: a clear communications strategy.
Compare this to the actual Second World War (cue: journalists quoting economists saying ‘coronavirus is the worst crisis since World War Two’), and you’ll see that one of the United Kingdom’s greatest assets during that era was the Ministry of Information, a government department whose purpose was to create public information and propaganda and, to communicate clear instructions to the public about how they were expected to play their part during an international crisis. The Ministry of Information was responsible for classics such as ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and ‘Dig for Victory!’.
After World War Two, the Ministry of Information’s remit was reduced into the Central Office of Information, tasked with the function of communicating clear messages to the public. In making this decision in 1946, the post-war Prime Minister Clement Atlee said, ‘the public should be adequately informed about the many matters in which Government action directly impinges on their daily lives.’
The COI acted for many decades as the Government’s internal advertising agency; government departments such as the Home Office or the Ministry of Health would commission the COI to produce campaigns for various issues of national importance. Having not grown up in the UK, my encounters with the COI have come from dinner parties where British friends become overly nostalgic about ‘Charley Says’ and the ‘Green Cross Code Man’. But passing the dinner party test proves its effectiveness. Years after they were first screened the messages of road safety, the perils of playing near water and, what to do in the event of a nuclear attack are still firmly wedged in the psyche of many British adults. If you want to get your nostalgia fix, the National Archives has a website with many of the videos produced by the Ministry of Information / Central Office of Information. This short film about avoiding the spread of germs remains relevant 74 years later.
So what happened? Why do we lack these memorable campaigns in the 21st Century? My research centres on the sociology of expertise and how people demonstrate knowledge and expertise to gain trust in the public sector. I explore the balance between personal responsibility and public accountability and how we navigate and understand what our role should be in any given situation.
In 2011, the Coalition government embarked on what has colloquially become known as ‘the bonfire of the quangos’. For those unfamiliar with the term quango, it stands for Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation. Essentially, these organisations were funded by the government but not completely controlled by the government. The Central Office of Information was abolished, alongside other quangos devoted to sustainable development, animal welfare, alcohol education and research and, school food. Some of these quangos were merged into government departments, some disappeared entirely. The COI was shuttered.
Nothing really filled the void left by the COI. Public messaging now became the responsibility of media teams within government departments. In reality, this meant that public information was privatised as campaigns were outsourced to advertising companies. Around the same time, the Government Digital Service was in its early stages but the remit was fundamentally different: to present government information and transactions online in a simpler and clearer format to help citizens interact with government as swiftly as possible. While the rationale of being focused on the citizen is the same, the expression of that focus differs.
Adjacent to this, the Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the Nudge Unit) was set up by the Cabinet Office with the intention of researching how tweaks can be made to certain transactions or communications in order to encourage people to act in particular, often beneficial ways. But again, while this dealt with communicating to the public, it has more in common with subliminal messaging than gathering the public around a common message and creating a common understanding. From the outset, the BIT was set up with the intention to become privatised, thus splitting its focus between the public and profit. It is not and cannot step in and be an equivalent of the Ministry of Information at a time like this.
And while for most of the last decade, the British public has been in a wistful, nostalgic phase of mourning the loss of the COI, 2020 has become the year we will truly lament the loss of this organisation. In a time of international crisis, the UK has no coherent voice or clear message on how to take personal and societal responsibility through our actions during this time. Indeed, we see how the Behavioural Insights Team is wedded to policy rather than communications when its chief David Halpern suggested that the UK would be aiming for ‘herd immunity’ in their approach to Covid-19. Anyone who studies controversy analysis or issue mapping would be wary of using the term ‘herd immunity’ at a time like this due to how contested the term is around vaccination debates. It was not a good public communications strategy if the aim was to both reassure the public and encourage them to take responsibility as individuals and society.
I currently live in Denmark and the messaging around coronavirus has been consistent since early March. Posters from the Danish Health Authority (both English and Danish language versions) appeared in high traffic areas around workplaces, giving guidance around hand washing and hygiene. These same messages were reiterated on the television and on advertising boards around Copenhagen.
Watching the confused messaging of the UK government alongside that of the government of my home country, Australia, I can’t help but be deeply concerned at the lives that will be lost indirectly because there is no ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ equivalent. The British public is told (with inconsistent branding) to ‘Protect the NHS’ but they haven’t been given constant, clear, consistent instructions on how to do just that. Sadly for Clement Atlee, almost 75 years after he spoke of the importance of the Central Office of Information, the British publics is not ‘adequately informed about the many matters in which Government action directly impinges on their daily lives.’ The shortsighted decision to shutter the Central Office of Information will prove to have deadly and heart wrenching consequences for the public that depended on them.
About the Author: Jessamy Perriam is an assistant professor in the Technologies in Practice group at the IT University of Copenhagen. She can be found on Twitter @jessyp