Don’t start with a solution in mind: What I learnt as a government strategist

A former strategist explains why research, relationships and a knack for knowing what people really want are key to a successful communications career
Photo: Adobe Stock

By Guy Dominy

22 Feb 2024

After a varied career in the world of advertising and communications, I joined the Central Office of Information aged 41. Set up in 1946, the COI was the government’s marketing and communications agency. When I joined in 2006, it was a Cabinet Office agency and – unusually – a “trading fund”, meaning it charged other government departments a fee to use its services.

Much of what COI did was procurement and contract management, though there were exceptions. I joined the strategic consulting team. Alongside procurement exercises, we carried out consulting projects. I was hired as a G7 strategic consultant to help departments and agencies tackle their comms challenges. I led 60 successful projects. Memorable highlights include developing comms strategies for Department of Heath programmes on patient and public empowerment (which, pre-Covid, was what the department meant when it used the acronym PPE), and helping the education department reform early years education and persuade teenagers to choose maths.

I also completed a highly sensitive review of the Department for International Development’s programme to increase support for foreign aid within the UK. The smallest project I worked on was facilitating a single workshop with the Student Loans Company to stop them from creating a second brand for repayments.

"Until you have wrestled the right information from the policy team, you cannot do your job effectively"

The election of 2010 changed everything. An initial review process made the bottom 40% of the department redundant. A few weeks later, we all lost our jobs, though the doors didn’t close until April 2012. Many staff were absorbed by departments they had worked with. Others went into the Cabinet Office, where a miniature COI had been developed, or left government.

My time in COI was one of the most rewarding periods of my career. I was privileged to meet and work with fascinating and gifted individuals. Here’s what I learnt.

  • Always go back to first principles. People will say they want “awareness” or to “promote” a programme or something equally fluffy. What they really want is a group of people to start doing something, stop doing something or change something. Until you have wrestled this information from the policy team, you cannot do your job effectively.
  • Be “media neutral”. Don’t start with a solution in mind. COI was not selling a specific solution, like a PR consultancy, so we had the luxury of being able to think up the best way to solve a problem.
  • Invest in building relationships with the policy teams you support. We were (almost) always asked for a solution too late. Communication is speedier to get up and running than policy interventions, but can still take several months. Invest in building relationships so you are in the loop from the start.
  • Build contingency into your schedule. Approvals are (almost) always a nightmare. Build contingency into your schedule – and if you are planning TV advertising make the timeframe weeks.
  • Bring strong evidence to the table. Too many people think they are a marketing expert, possibly because we have all been exposed to a nonstop barrage of marketing communication from an early age. The answer? When presenting ideas, research your craft and provide evidence. Even more importantly, evaluate your own activity so that you have your own evidence to use.
  • Follow the news. Civil servants should be politically neutral, not politically naïve. Approvals, scrutiny and people second guessing outcomes will be more difficult to navigate the closer your project is to a hot political agenda. Keep yourself informed.

Guy Dominy works in consultancy and training in the public and private sectors 


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