Alex Aiken: The messages on reform must improve

This is the most exciting time to work in public service for a generation. The pace of reform and the scale of budget reductions require brilliant leadership, first class management and exceptional communications from district councils to Downing Street.

Alex Aiken: 'It is clear that the reform agenda is under strain'
Alex Aiken: 'It is clear that the reform agenda is under strain'
As we approach the first anniversary of the coalition government it’s time to consider how the reputation of public service stands and what public relations can do to manage the reputation of government during these times of change and austerity.

It’s clear that the reform agenda is under strain. The NHS Confederation has just told that government that changes to health services are imperiled by poor communications and require ‘a compelling narrative about why the reforms matter’.

This is evidently correct, as the personal intervention by the prime minister in the NHS debate demonstrates. But other reforms to education and changes to police services also seem to be suffering from an absence of a coherent story while the drive to embed messages around the Big Society seems stalled.  

And locally, it seems clear that the government won the first round of the ‘cuts’ battle in terms of public perception. The drumbeat of stories of wasteful, incompetent local authorities has created a view, held by around 40% of people that councils were crying wolf over the cuts, and this contributed to a 20% fall in satisfaction with councils between December and March. Even the role of the PR manager is under threat with the secretary of state for communities announcing that Essex County Council ‘is such a good authority it really does not need a spin doctor. This is a post they should leave vacant.’
 
So, as we start a new financial year government at every level requires a better story and a focus on value for money. But it also needs public authorities to develop a meaningful conversation with the people they serve, and staff who work for them in terms of explaining what changes are proposed, consulting carefully and demonstrating what changed as a result of the conversation. Some councils are already doing this – from Nottinghamshire’s ‘Big Conversation’ through to Richmond’s ‘Barefoot Consultation’ - but they are not standard practice.

Every PR manager should take part in the wider debate about the reform, role and objectives of public services in the years ahead to shape the public conversation. Chief executives have long asked for better advice from government communicators, and now is the time to give it as organisations struggle to come to terms with the immediate impact of cuts and reduced resources. The Welsh Assembly Government’s new public engagement project, with its focus on a common story for public service around quality of life and shared provision shows how local and central government can work together to promote great services.

We have many good route maps for helping organisations navigate the challenges ahead. The Local Government Association, COI and others have produced a stream of readable advice about how to manage communications, from the seminal LGA ‘Reputation Campaign’ to COI guides to evaluation and public engagement. This material provides the foundation from which credible advice can be offered, but too often even heads of communications ignore it and act like rabbits on the headlights when faced with problems, rather than coolly considering the strategy, the research and objectives and then acting.

The story for public service over the next two years will oscillate between examples of chaos, waste and failure and success stories of reforms which have worked, engaged citizens and delivered better outcomes with fewer resources. The difference between the two will partly be built by PR managers who craft an honest and credible story about what their organisation wants to achieve, deal honestly and robustly with their leadership, ensure consistency in delivery and involves people - creating the public advocates who will enhance the reputation of public service. If you are not doing this, Eric Pickles might be right; do you really need a head of communications?  
 
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus

Latest Articles

John Lewis to tell brand story with "tasteful" 150th anniversary celebrations

John Lewis to tell brand story with "tasteful" 150th anniversary celebrations

Department store John Lewis is to use its 150th anniversary this year to talk about its history, which "not enough people know about", according to director of communications Peter Cross.

Labour hires Obama election strategist David Axelrod to fight General Election

Labour hires Obama election strategist David Axelrod to fight General Election

The man who helped Barack Obama win the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections is to work for Labour along with members of his team.

Sky adds Fever PR to its roster after splitting with Cake

Sky adds Fever PR to its roster after splitting with Cake

Pay-TV giant Sky has added Fever PR to its agency line-up for a wide-ranging brief covering products and services.

Max Clifford trial jury to continue deliberations after Easter break

Max Clifford trial jury to continue deliberations after Easter break

The jury in the trial of celebrity publicist Max Clifford has been sent home for Easter and will reconvene on Tuesday for further deliberations about its verdicts on 11 charges of indecent assault.

Home Office brings in Munro & Forster to campaign against FGM

Home Office brings in Munro & Forster to campaign against FGM

The Home Office has tasked Munro & Forster (M&F) with supporting its campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) as part of a wider retained brief.