John Shewell: The limitations on council publications is a non-issue

There's been a lot of activity in recent weeks coming out of the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) ranging from opening up public sector spending to staff and the public taking over the delivery of services.

'Public service comms runs the risk of losing hearts and minds': John Shewell
'Public service comms runs the risk of losing hearts and minds': John Shewell

Earlier this week, the Government announced that it intends to publish the Public Service Reform White Paper in a couple of weeks, which is supposed to be the ‘biggest shake up in public service provision for fifty years’. There is no doubt that we are in a period of unprecedented change.

Yet many senior comms people seem paralysed by issues that are irrelevant. There is a growing danger that the sector has taken its eyes off the ball.

For weeks, I’ve heard how council comms folk are distressed by how the secretary of state is ignoring an independent report to press ahead with making council publications quarterly and stop them from selling ad space. So what?

The whole council publications debate is a non-issue. If I was cynical I’d say it’s a masterstroke by the Government to distract attention while they continue to press the case for reducing public sector spending. Did anyone pick up the latest council bashing in the Telegraph relating to ‘fat cat’ salaries? Probably not.

As a sector, local public service comms runs the risk of losing the hearts and minds battle with staff and citizens about the cuts.

Rather than equipping the organisation with the capability and capacity to manage change, we’re taking our eyes off the ball over issues of little relevance to the organisation overall. And don’t give me any of the ‘it’s important to our reputation’ nonsense either.

The sector’s reputation is under siege and focussing on a council newspaper is not going to mean a dot of difference when the cuts come. I’d argue that by taking our collective eyes off the ball we are complicit in undermining the reputation of the sector, too.

The Government is winning the battle to completely undermine confidence in public services on two fronts: on one hand it describes the sector as ‘wasteful’ by citing so-called fat-cat salaries for chief executives and their "enormous" golden goodbyes, while on the other suggesting that the public can do better at running these services. It’s a win-win; but where are the council comms in all of this? Moaning about council newspapers probably.

How can chief executives trust comms if all we’re keen to do is worry about our own issues rather than on the impact of Government policy on the organisation and our network of partners?

Local public service comms is still a long way from being the trusted advisor that it desperately craves. Heads of comms must earn the right to have the ear of their organisations’ leaders. In order to that, they need to see the bigger picture and its impact at the local level in order to advise the organisation and chart a course through these very challenging times.

John Shewell is the head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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