Even pre-credit crunch, the manilla envelope from the town hall rarely endeared us to the public. Most people paid because they knew the council provided essential services like bin collections and useful services like libraries, and agreed these services should continue.
Financial austerity has made the job of asking our residents to pay up harder. Household budgets are sorely stretched. Residents, quite rightly, want to know exactly where every penny they spend is going. Unlike their energy supplier however they can’t ‘switch’ their local authority unless, of course, they move home.
You can add to that the atmosphere of intense scrutiny that now surrounds public spending, buoyed by hostile sections of the media. Nobody will get thanked for simply freezing council tax. And this is the climate in which we are about to ask our residents for an average of £1,100 for the year. This is the time of year that we need to tell a convincing and credible story around our budgets.
For local authority communicators, the critical task is to give the budget a people focus. I’d suggest there are three points that should be on the communications department’s checklist.
First, stress the range of services the authority provides. And forget this weary refrain of 'protecting front line services' – I have never been for a coffee with somebody who leans across the table and confides they are worried their council will cut the ‘the provision of front line services’. However by front line what we actually mean are the people who work in children’s centres or who provide meals to the elderly.
They are the youth workers who stop young people on estates drifting into dangerous company, or who are driving along roads in the early hours to ensure they are gritted. You can state – correctly – that your council provides hundreds of services. But give them a human face. Put it that way and you generally get a different response.
Secondly avoid talking in council speak – like ‘efficiency savings’ – our residents have to save and scrimp, and they also expect the same from us. In the mind of our residents ‘finding more cost effective ways to provide services’ should be an integral part of our day job and shouldn’t just be forced upon us by a lack of money from government. In Westminster, we will be on track to save £100 million by 2015. And we can prove that 75 per cent of those savings come from back office efficiencies. That means not cutting lollipop ladies and bin crews, but removing unnecessary tiers of management.
Thirdly, communicators need to underline the point that local authorities run services funded by the council tax bill because they are good managers who can be trusted. Councils are in a unique 'people' business – few organisations touch people’s daily lives in the way we do.
The council brand on a bin lorry, a roadside hoarding or a day centre should be the assurance of a quality service that the user can trust. We do not promote the council brand for its own sake, but the fact that brand represents a ‘quality stamp’ that should reassure our residents that the service they receive will be of a high standard.
Finally the overall budget message can be helped by demonstrating that council services are not only value for money, but are also more easily accessible than ever.
In Westminster, at one time we employed ten people in three one-stop shops who handled 200 transactions a day. We now employ two people who handle 100 web transactions every day.
People expect to transact with the council, as they do with many of their household services, in a way and at a time that suits them. Closing one stop shops has actually driven up service ratings because it is more convenient for people to do business with us by other channels. The crucial point in turning a cut into a reputational benefit was to make sure that the new cost efficient provision was first class and publicise the change widely and clearly.
We work on behalf of a population which is demanding, sophisticated and rightfully intolerant of underperformance. They need to know their council is sensible, competent, on their side and shrewd with their money. That needs a budget message with a human face.
Julia Corkey is assistant director of communications and strategy, Westminster City Council. She will be replacing Alex Aiken as public sector columnist.