Complaints about the COI's funding levels make for easy headlines, but the fuss usually dies down as the political agenda moves on to something more substantial. However, at last week's Conservative Party conference the future funding and role of the organisation was in question as shadow chancellor George Osborne vowed to cut government adspend to offset a freeze on council tax.
Osborne used Nielsen data to point out that only Procter & Gamble spends more on all forms of advertising than the COI, and proposed to reduce spend to levels similar to those of 1997 by capping government ad budgets that do not apply to the NHS, schools and the police, if the Conservatives should come to power.
Such proclamations are key to Conservative leader David Cameron's grand goal - also announced at last week's conference - to impose 'discipline on government spending'. These types of promises are often quickly forgotten, but given the unpopularity of the current administration and the strong likelihood that the Tories would win an overwhelming majority in a snap general election, they should be considered with some seriousness.
Mark Wallace, campaigns director at the Taxpayers' Alliance, believes Osborne's proposals do not go far enough. 'Do we really want Whitehall spending tens of millions on planning and running ad campaigns, rather than on schools, hospitals and the criminal justice system?' he asks. 'We have a health service turning people away, while the government is spending money on making moral judgments about how people should live their lives.'
Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy group, disagrees. 'Reducing spend on government advertising may be the right thing to do where it isn't working, or serves an agenda that the new government does not wish to pursue, but to make a blanket pronouncement against the use of advertising is silly,' he says. 'Which is better? Hiring more doctors and firemen, or encouraging people not to get ill or start fires? A lot of evidence suggests the latter can be a better use of money.'
However, it is not only fringe political pressure groups that are prepared to add their weight to the argument that government spending needs reining in - the Liberal Democrats also offer some cross-party support. Steve Lotinga, constitutional cultural affairs adviser to the Liberal Democrats, says that his party, too, is scrutinising COI spend.
'It has soared under Labour', he adds. 'While we recognise that information campaigns on subjects such as safer driving and anti-smoking have play-ed a positive role, there are cases of COI budgets being put to what look like politically motivated uses.'
As examples, Lotinga cites COI-funded ITV series Beat: Life on the Streets, which follows the work of Police Community Support Officers, and the COI's hiring of Bartle Bogle Hegarty to create an ad-funded programme with the provisional title Jeremy Kyle Gets Britain Working.
The Home Office was recently forced to retract its contribution to Sky TV series Border Patrol, following allegations that this constituted a misuse of funds because it promoted the work of the immigration service and, by extension, the message that the government had got a grip on illegal immigration, amid considerable public concern that it was out of control.
Given the politically charged nature of these accusations, it was surprising that the Labour Party and Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson MP, who is politically responsible for the COI, refused to rebut them.
For its part, the COI maintains that its work provides substantial return on investment. 'The Home Office's crime-reduction campaign cost £21m, and saved the criminal justice system £590m,' claims Peter Buchanan, deputy chief executive of the COI. 'Similarly, HMRC's campaign to persuade taxpayers to file their tax returns online generated £7.9m in savings for the department in 2005.'
Observers add that, historically, the Conservative Party has also been responsible for a rise in COI spend to support its privatisation policies.
While the debate over the COI's role will continue, the current government would do well to recognise that there is a consensus about the appropriate use of public funds. While their deployment for public information or necessary behavioural change campaigns is widely considered to be legitimate, the assignment of government funding to the making of TV programmes, which are designed for entertainment, is not.