In practical terms this means creating the environment where people can meaningfully connect, facilitating conversations and curating the content to reshape services and reputation.
This can be achieved by mapping the local network – online and offline, and inside and outside the organisation.
Local public services need to go to where these networks congregate and participate in the conversations rather than expecting people to come to them.
Tap into what Clay Shirky describes as the ‘cognitive surplus’ of citizens and harness their collective goodwill towards civic action.
This creates a closer relationship with stakeholders and citizens, improves dialogue and understanding, and reaffirms the sector’s relevance.
Local public services are well placed to make this happen and be at the forefront of sustaining better democratic conversations and civic participation.
Lewes District Council is good example of a local authority embedding democratic principles within the organisation and out into the community.
They are looking to change attitudes across the organisation, and to ensure that staff feel able to collaborate with anyone inside the council or beyond to develop, test and deliver participative public services. This is innovative stuff.
Therefore, understand how the future will impact local public services by paying attention to the emerging patterns, which point to a future where sustainable public services and cohesive communities will become integrated.
Beyond the financial challenges, there are demographic changes (such as more people living longer) placing significant pressure on social care and public health budgets; technology is rapidly evolving leaving many local public services struggling to keep up with the pace of change; and more people want to get involved with local decision-making but the infrastructures are often too fragmented to enable civic action to meaningfully work.
These are just some of the challenges facing local public services, and comms teams can play a role in shaping the future of their organisations.
In order to prepare for the future, public servants need to let go of control.
This is an opportunity to create the environment in which staff, stakeholders and citizens can get involved in shaping the design and delivery of local public services.
Better civic engagement and participation is fundamentally good for democracy, but it can potentially create sustainable public services, and improve the reputation of the organisation.
The charity for democratic participation, Demsoc, recently developed a set of principles (http://www.demsoc.org/participationprinciples/), which Lewes DC also signed up to. This is a good guide for local public service comms teams.
Comms teams are at a tipping point where engagement and participation will become commonplace. Now is the time to make sense of the future and support the organisation deliver a truly sustainable reputation.
John Shewell is John Shewell is the head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council.
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