Local government cuts: Survive the age of austerity

The Comprehensive Spending Review has triggered a seismic change in public sector spending. Matt Cartmell asks council comms chiefs how communicators can adapt.

Chat room: Harrow's Let's Talk campaign
Chat room: Harrow's Let's Talk campaign

The Comprehensive Spending Review signifies the most important change to the public sector in a generation. What it most clearly spells out is that local authorities' priorities must be with frontline provision - social services, schools and refuse collection.

This means that PR and other corporate services will need to find ways of reducing their spending.

But the cuts are not the only changes brought in by the coalition Government. The Department for Communities and Local Government's revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity - which calls for more stringent guidelines on councils using agencies and issuing newsletters - and the vague requirements of David Cameron's Big Society agenda must also be considered.

Westminster City Council director of comms Alex Aiken says the key for public sector PROs dealing with all of this is to think creatively.

'We need to be imaginative about how we can do better comms, online, with partners, at less cost,' he says. 'The best public agencies have always thought like this.'

Here we outline suggestions on how to navigate the stormy months ahead and take a look at how some local authorities are already coping.

HOW TO ... COMMUNICATE WITH RESIDENTS

As the process of cuts begins to hit councils, it will be more important than ever to communicate changes to residents.

1. Start early Do not presume that it is too early to start thinking about this. While most councillors will not start making decisions on changed services until December, you should already be working through the detail of what may change, and how you will inform residents.

Coventry City Council head of comms Fran Collingham reports: 'We're already communicating that we will need to make tough decisions and the challenges of having to make these decisions.'

2. Involve residents in decision-making Many councils are currently running consultation periods with their residents to find out what their own priorities are for services. As well as Bristol's 'Budget Conversation', Harrow Council has launched a campaign called 'Let's Talk'. Harrow Council leader Bill Stephenson set up a pop-up living room in the town centre and invited shoppers in for a chat, with the aim of directly involving residents in decisions about spending and priorities.

Derbyshire County Council is also, in the words of assistant director of comms Jenny Tozer, carrying out some 'fairly massive' consultation exercises over potential changes to services, asking the public how it feels about changes. 'We're asking people what services they currently use and what they think of the changes we are proposing,' says Tozer.

3. Be upfront and transparent There is nothing to be gained from being secretive. Coventry City Council is working with the BBC national news on a long-term project over the next year, focusing on Coventry as a city and the challenges facing the public sector as a whole, and particularly around how it may impact on council services.

Coventry's Collingham said: 'We're making it clear we will be honest and open and upfront with people.'

The project started with a piece on the Six O'Clock News, which looked at the ways the council is saving money and the gap it still has to fill. The reporter took a list of council services and their annual costs, and asked people to choose between them.

'People found this difficult,' says Collingham. 'One resident said, "I am glad I'm not having to make these decisions", which was a powerful and useful message to get across about the complexity of the challenges councils are facing.'

4. Do not forget internal comms Humberside Police has started using a regular weekly e-newsletter. This is integrated with online activities guiding staff to blogs, chat sites, Q&A sessions and signposting them to other useful information. In-house plasma screens are in use across the force area, directing staff to where they can access more information.

HOW TO ... JUSTIFY THE ROLE OF COMMS ITSELF

The spotlight on comms can only increase as there is more consideration of public expenses and where they are going. You will need to be able to justify comms to your leaders, to your residents and to the press.

1. Make a business case As Derbyshire's Tozer says: 'We, as a council, are expecting to make 2,000 job losses. From a comms point of view, you have to have a business case to maintain comms. With fostering there is a business case for it, by showing how it will cost less than using external agencies. So, it is a case of showing that you do need comms to help save money and to communicate some very difficult messages over the coming months.'

Bristol City Council service director of comms and marketing Peter Holt adds that 'comms and marketing have had to demonstrate their continued value under intense scrutiny, just like any other support service, as priority is given to frontline services'.

However, he adds he has been fortunate in that his leader has recognised that communication has become more important, not less, at the current time.

2. Influence policy Comms professionals can have a key strategic role to play in shaping council policy and influencing and supporting the thinking of the top team - both chief executive and leader. East Lindsey District Council comms manager James Gilbert says: 'Successfully undertaking this role can prove your worth, because at a time when local governments face many challenges they need you to be at the top of your game and giving your best advice on how to take the tough decisions and the likely fallout from them.' Gilbert adds that the real value is the advice comms professionals can bring to the table when the big decisions are being made.

3. Be innovative As Collingham says: 'PROs can prove their worth by innovating, being at the heart of change management, delivering and leading on internal comms, supporting senior managers and politicians through difficult times. Also, finding ways of engaging effectively with local people so we can have some honest conversations about the future of the city.'

4. Use evaluation By showing the value of comms, its reach and the positive impact it is having, you will find it easier to justify the existence of your department. As Westminster's Aiken says, a key way of showing the value of comms is 'by using research and evaluation to show the difference we make'. Comms directors should be spending this period making sure their evaluation methods are up to scratch.

HOW TO ... SAVE CASH

You will, of course, be expected to make cuts yourself. These may take a number of forms, and will not have to automatically include redundancy. Let's look at some of the options.

1. Reduce headcount The main possibility - and one that many will be dreading - is to reduce headcount. For instance, Havering District Council plans to cut two staff (see case study), while Westminster will be cutting four to six posts to reduce spending by £400,000.

Westminster's Aiken has suggested that the average size of a local authority comms team could be slashed by one-third during the next three years. But this does not necessarily mean enforced redundancy. Bristol is planning to remove three posts from its team, to contribute to the £22m savings across the city council next year.

Fortunately, these posts are currently vacant, so there will not actually be any redundancies among comms staff. Head of comms Peter Holt adds: 'Clearly, we will need to juggle workload and reprioritise.'

2. Take more services online Many councils are developing ways of handling more comms online, removing the cost of printing publications and handling expensive media relations. Coventry's Collingham says: 'We have been developing some innovative approaches to communicating through social media - our Facebook page has 15,500 fans and rising, and is a great way to communicate cheaply.'

Collingham adds that the council carried out a three-day online consultation with IBM earlier this year, involving hundreds of local people discussing the issues they cared about. 'It would have cost thousands to hold a conference involving as many people,' she adds.

3. Get rid of your council magazine Council newsletters are already in the sights of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. His revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity has put forward a proposal to forcibly reduce council publications' frequency to four a year. With this in mind, councils may consider reducing the frequency of their magazines - or axing them completely. For example, the day after the Comprehensive Spending Review announcement, Northamptonshire County Council announced that it intended to drop its quarterly residents' magazine Together Northamptonshire, saving £100,000 a year.

At Thurrock Council, interim head of comms Phil McCusker says the council plans to scrap its local publication and form a new partnership with a local media company: 'We are going to pitch it out now.' Collingham adds that Coventry is making savings by developing the council magazine as a partnership publication.

4. Sell your services Councils are finding ways of selling their comms expertise to other public sector bodies. As revealed in PRWeek (28 October), councils such as Northamptonshire, Blackburn with Darwen, and Brighton & Hove are all considering selling their services, following in the footsteps of Westminster and Essex councils.

Bristol's Holt says: 'We are using our expertise and spare capacity to take on extra work, including a £28,000 deal from a joint project with neighbouring authorities.'

'WE ARE RESTRUCTURING OUR COMMS TEAM' LONDON BOROUGH OF HAVERING

The London Borough of Havering plans to make savings of £100,000 to its comms team, but if head of comms Mark Leech's plan goes ahead, he believes he should only have to reduce headcount by two.

His proposed restructure would see the comms team split into distinct functions.

'The plan is to have two teams within comms,' says Leech. 'One working on longer-term internal and external behaviour-change campaigns, and the other managing our ongoing external comms.'

Leech is following standard processes for restructures and is nearing the end of a consultation period with staff. Because the plan is part of a broader council-wide restructure, the implementation date will be the beginning of next April.

'The proposals to turn the press office into a more rounded PR operation would save money, but it would also help members of the team develop new skills and broaden their CV for the future,' he explains.

'Even with a pretty robust local media, the reach of the local press is limited and under these plans the team would be running consistent messages across a much broader range of channels. We have been moving that way for some time and these proposals just formalise this shift in emphasis.'

Currently, Havering's comms service covers media relations, marketing, website, design, internal comms, events and publications - including its fortnightly community newspaper Living - and print.

Leech is keen to emphasise that these plans are currently at consultation stage, and that the proposed new Code of Local Authority Publicity could still have significant impact on what the council does.

'WE ASKED LOCAL PEOPLE TO HELP' BRISTOL CITY COUNCIL

Bristol City Council needs to make savings of £22m in 2011. Central to this process is how residents could be involved in such cuts and how the cuts are communicated.

The council's leader decided to try something new and asked people to submit ideas, rather than merely being told about decisions made in a 'smoke-filled room'.

Bristol's service director of comms and marketing Peter Holt explains: 'The Bristol approach has been to involve the public in a big debate, contributing their own suggestions to how best to cope with the financial constraints.'

The debate, named Bristol's Budget Conversation, was set up online from a WordPress blog site, which cost nothing to develop and launch.

'We looked at a range of different things, but we decided upon WordPress because it is a place where lots of people have conversations, so has a ready-made audience.'

The council promoted the site through its existing consultation network, on its website and by engaging prominent local bloggers.

More than 6,000 people have participated since June, with about 500 individual suggestions submitted.

These fell into 70 different themes in total, every one of which has been considered by the council's cabinet. Some element of nearly all of the 70 areas has been progressed to contribute to the £22m savings required.

The whole exercise has been carried out with full transparency, and all recorded at bristol.gov.uk/conversation.

'It was something that was expected to lead to some difficult conversations, but we were a little less worried about people's reactions to our changes, because of our openness,' says Holt.

'WE ARE TRYING TO INNOVATE' BRIGHTON & HOVE CITY COUNCIL

Brighton & Hove has already revealed that it plans to make comms savings of more than £1m over the next two years, following an audit.

The council's head of comms John Shewell says: 'We're looking at everything. It is very much a root and branch treatment of comms.

The idea is to get to a figure of about £400,000 to £500,000 in savings a year.'

With that process now under way, Shewell is investigating the idea of a wide-ranging model that would create a 'comms hub' of local authority, PCT, NHS, council, police and fire services comms.

Shewell submitted the proposal to the local public sector board on 2 November, but remains unclear about how the final set-up would look. 'There are two options,' says Shewell. 'There is a federation approach, which has constituent parts that come together, or there is a consolidated approach where everything is completely merged.'

It is not only comms innovation that is taking place at the South Coast authority. The council is also moving ahead with using social media as a way of lessening the impact of cuts. This is particularly relevant to this city, which has a high proportion of web-savvy citizens.

In particular, Brighton & Hove recently used location-based social networking website Foursquare to boost the use of 15 libraries across the city with a special 'Foursquare day'. Anyone checking in on the platform at any library on that day was entered into a prize draw, in which ten annual audio visual subscription cards could be won.

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