Live issue: Public versus Private sector - A different perspective

Government bodies are increasingly likely to call on external agencies for event support. Simon Stephens reports on the growing ties between the two sectors.

At one time the cultures of the private and public sectors could not have been more different, but as government draws increasingly upon external services it seems the edges have blurred. Central and local government are now very familiar with using the private sector to provide services, and events are no exception.

"The differences between working on events in the public and private sectors have reduced considerably as government or public sector organisations become more commercially driven," comments Nigel Engeham, sales director at creative communications agency Mice International. "Budgets and associated purchasing objectives in the public and private sectors don't tend to differ as much. Procurement departments and institutionalised purchase decision-making are causing external consultants to work harder to deliver value for money and return on investment."

One of the major organisers of public sector events is the Central Office of Information (COI), which offers consultancy, procurement and project management services to central government and other public sector bodies.

The COI has a range of specialist departments, including the Live Events and Broadcast Facilities group. As well as offering in-house event management services, the COI helps procure private sector input from a roster of more than 100 agencies working in nearly 30 different disciplines. It currently runs about 55% of events and contracts the remainder.

Live Events and Broadcast Facilities director Simon Hughes was involved in event management in the private sector before joining the COI, and believes certain campaigns are more suited to in-house production.

"The split of work is about right, although some on our roster would like us to do more with them," says Hughes. "But sometimes our work is driven by our collective COI interests, such as the web, events, press and marketing. If this is the case, it is probably easier for us to do it rather than brief lots of different companies."

A recent example of a wide-ranging in-house project is the Academy roadshows that the COI events team organised for the Home Office's Together campaign, which tackled anti-social behaviour. The roadshows toured the country in March 2004 and again in March this year. Campaigns such as this, which are part of wider government initiatives and involve many promotional disciplines, are in contrast to events such as the 2004 New Year's Eve experience. On behalf of the Greater London Authority (GLA), the COI contracted one of its rostered agencies, Jack Morton Public Events, to produce a New Year celebration in London.

"They came to us because of our work for the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens," says Dan Colborne, the creative director at Jack Morton responsible for the GLA event. Jack Morton suggested London Lights, a concept that combined pyrotechnics with lighting and projections to create a six-hour event.

"They liked the fact that we had a vision, and also the creativity and reassurance that it would work," says Colborne.

Live is another agency on the COI roster and has worked on a wide range of public sector projects, with clients including The Prince's Trust and the Cabinet Office. Live's client development director Sara Donaldson says she likes the more formal approach of the public sector.

"An interesting thing about the public sector is a lot of the procurement is done through the COI," says Donaldson. "From our point of view it is a good process as it's a level playing field, and we are not just judged on price but other factors such as added value and our track record. The main thing when working with the COI is you have a contract nailed down from the start. The process is not always quite as transparent in the private sector."

The drawback of such a process is that it can be bureaucratic, but many who work on public sector events say it is impossible to generalise.

"We have a robust procurement process, the length and complexity of which is linked to the budget of the project," says GLA head of events Martin Green. "The scheme can be long but it ensures fairness and value for money. Nevertheless it is a fallacy that the public sector is restricted by bureaucracy. As the private sector deals with the needs of clients, we deal with the public and politicians. In both cases some decisions are quick, some need more thought."

Tim Spencer, managing director of agency Ten Alps Events, which is also on the COI roster, is wary of making generalisations as well. He feels that in some cases the notion of the public sector as being more bureaucratic derives from a lack of understanding of the processes involved.

"The idea that the public sector is more bureaucratic is put about by people because they are contending with something they are not used to working with in the private sector," Spencer says.

Ten Alps' work has included the UK Pavilion for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at Expo 2005 in Japan. Spencer says that by its very nature, the public sector is fundamentally different to the private. "When corporate companies are thinking about the content of what they are doing, they will have a more focused idea of who their audience is and what they want to achieve," he says. "By definition, the public sector is always going to be less defined as they are aiming at the public as a whole."

Agency Acclaim has developed events for a range of public sector bodies, including the Department for Education and Skills. Acclaim managing director Simon Hambley also has varied experiences of the sector, which make it difficult for him to generalise: "If it's a project that is close to the Government and is a hot topic, there is less bureaucracy, it will get pushed through and there will be a good budget."

He says the level of people's experience also varies between government agencies: "We are one of the Department of Health's roster agencies and its events team is very professional. It is like working with a big corporate."

Acclaim recently developed a roadshow for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to tour UK nightclubs to promote the Connexions Card, a government initiative that encourages young people to remain in learning. Hambley says this project compares favourably with its work for some private sector clients.

"The Connexions project was very creative with a lot of design," he says.

"And as an agency we really enjoyed the event. The good thing about the public sector is a lot of the time we are doing something of value to people."

Content is something that appeals to many agencies involved with public sector events. "Our work with the London 2012 bid team, which is effectively public sector, is phenomenally interesting," says Donaldson at Live. "Corporate work is often product related, but public sector work is often service related. This gives us more scope within which to create interesting content."

Live is often engaged to initiate a culture change in organisations.

It has done this for private companies such as BUPA and public bodies such as Ealing Council.

"We have done culture change programmes with the private sector, but it was very innovative for a public sector body to do it," says Donaldson.

"It was much more acceptable with BUPA to go in with a programme like that. Ealing Council had to be far braver. We were really on a programme of dramatic change and you could feel it affecting the heart and soul of the organisation."

The COI's Hughes says that even if content is interesting, the challenge is often to present it in an exciting way: "Content is often constrained by political considerations - that's political with a small 'p'. And people often have a very fixed view of what content is. We undertake a lot of education about what live events actually are."

One quality that agencies certainly need for public sector events is sensitivity to issues such as inclusivity, protocol and politics. Mice has been involved with major state occasions, such as when it worked with the German Foreign Office to organise the Queen's visit to Berlin, where the devastation caused by Allied bombing during World War Two was acknowledged.

Mice was also involved with the Portuguese government to mark the handover of Macau to China in 1999.

"An important part of the approach to these types of state events, in contrast to the private sector, is the necessary protocol and security measures when working with heads of state," says Engeham at Mice. "State events have a unique and specialised audience, often consisting of other high-profile dignitaries, and the theme and story must be delivered in a particular style."

One aspect everyone agrees on is that public sector expenditure on live events is growing. The COI is planning to re-let its roster before the summer and is expecting more companies to apply than at the last re-evaluation, two years ago.

As the strength of the sector grows, one development that is likely to become more common is agencies being asked to help organise the sales and sponsorship for events. Jack Morton is involved in getting sponsorship for the GLA's next New Year's Eve event, and Live is handling the sales for SkillCity, a careers and training event it is organising for London First at Excel in July.

"Our job is to put the team together and also arrange sales and sponsorship," says Donaldson. "My instinct is that this is going to be an increasing requirement for public sector events."

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