Local authority comms lessons for Government in the wake of Alex Aiken's new role

Like many others in the public sector, I was very interested to read of the appointment of Westminster Council's Alex Aiken to the civil service's top communications role.

Polly Cziok: Alex Aiken's appointmentspeaks volumes about local authority comms
Polly Cziok: Alex Aiken's appointmentspeaks volumes about local authority comms

There has always been some movement between local and central government communications, but an appointment of this seniority shows that such success in the world of local authority comms as Aiken has undisputedly enjoyed, is taken very seriously by Ministers and mandarins alike.       

There is much that central government communications operations can learn from their counterparts in Town Halls up and down the country. 

Local government communicators, at our best, are fast, flexible and accountable to the communities we serve. 

We excel in media relations, in consultation, in reaching diverse audiences, in managing reputation, and in changing behaviour through effective, integrated campaigns. 

Local councils have led the way in the public sector social media revolution and in taking services on-line. 

With one eye always on the bottom line, we know how to deliver cost effective communications that deliver results for local people.  

It is clear, from Aiken’s appointment, that central government recognises and values the expertise that local government has to offer.

However, it is important that the Government also recognises that our success in communications depends on councils having the freedom and flexibility to operate in the way that best suits the needs of local areas. In local government, we know our audiences. 

We have done our research.  We have talked to local people.  We have done our maths, and we know the most cost effective ways of informing and engaging our residents. 

If the Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles moves, as he has threatened to do, to legislate to restrict the means and frequency through which councils can communicate with local people, he will be not only flying in the face of his own localist agenda, but he may end up forcing some local authorities to spend more money on communications and advertising than they currently do.  

It would be an enormous shame if the Government ends up damaging the ability of local councils to connect with their residents, especially as councils take on huge new responsibilities in the public health arena.

Alex Aiken leaves a strong legacy behind him in our sector.  He has made a huge contribution to local government and played a big part in raising professional standards across the whole sector. 

I hope that in his new role, he will take everything that is best about local government communications into the civil service, and that he will continue to be an advocate for the sector and its freedom to operate in the interests of local people.


Polly Cziok is head of comms and consultation at the London Borough of Hackney, and acting chairwoman of the CIPR Local Public Services Group

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