Explaining welfare reform

As the universal credit scheme begins to roll out, it's clear that welfare reform will continue to be one of the dominant issues in the political agenda both now and in the run up to the general election.

Julia Corkey: The role of comms is to 'screen out some of the clamour' around welfare reform
Julia Corkey: The role of comms is to 'screen out some of the clamour' around welfare reform

As public sector communicators, we face the risk of being caught in the middle of competing political arguments.

How do we explain and where necessary defend these changes while still staying the neutral voice of the authority?

Actually, I think the answer is straightforward– and that is keeping to the facts while demonstrating we are on the side of residents and providing help where we can.

Welfare reform was the main debate at the most recent full council meeting of my own authority.

As you would expect, the speeches ran the full span of opinion. Some speakers condemned a system where people had received benefits to support them to live in central London homes beyond the reach of ordinary taxpayers. 

Others spoke of the impact of the welfare reform on families and children who had moved to the outer suburbs.

The role of communications and strategy departments here is to screen out some of the clamour and explain to residents what welfare reform will mean, and what the council is doing to help.

In Westminster, we are marshalling our communications messages about welfare reform under one banner – F.A.I.R, or  Fairness, Aspiration, Investment and Responsibility.

Fair is pretty self explanatory – the country couldn’t afford a housing benefit bill of £23 billion a year, £270m of which alone was spent in Westminster.

Aspiration – like councils across the country, we run a number of initiatives providing support, help and assistance to households, particularly those affected by welfare reform, to get back into work.

All progressive councils have a convening role in bringing together jobs training and potential employers, and this is a standard we can all advance behind. Investment – again, a strong message to push.

In our case we are building 1,200 new homes over the next few years under our Housing Renewal Programme whilst our Troubled Families work is investing in the actual fabric of our communities; most council communicators should have similar examples they can use.

And finally, responsibility. Now, this term isn’t as loaded as it might initially sound. It simply means that as the benefit system is restructured, there is a reality to be faced by residents over where they can afford to live.

Councils can help here by offering to renegotiate rents; provide discretionary housing payments for our most vulnerable residents and families where, for example, children are taking exams, and fulfil our traditional role of providing high quality temporary accommodation.

The messages represented by FAIR are, I believe, a useful communications tool in ensuring that a clear and common sense voice is heard above the sound and fury.

Media reports will highlight both the casualties of welfare reform and, at the other end of the scale, those alleged examples of the "mother of nine on benefits demands bigger council house" variety.

It will be a turbulent period for public sector communicators. But we can steer a steadier course by keeping to the facts of which we have a duty to inform and educate.

 

Julia Corkey is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council.

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