Comms lessons from the LGA Conference

This week the Local Government Association held its annual conference to debate the big issues facing local authorities. Attending the event was Westco Trading's Ian Farrow, who explains why PRs should take notice...

Life's a beach in Bournemouth: But tough times continue in the public sector
Life's a beach in Bournemouth: But tough times continue in the public sector

Time to roll up the suit trousers for a quick paddle again. The LGA Conference was beside the seaside in Bournemouth this year and it had some pretty existential questions for professional communicators.

Halfway through the planned austerity, councils have plundered the low-hanging fruit. The coming years will see significant transformation and at pace as we face ongoing and deepening financial challenges. This is an exciting and demanding time for communicators and one where we can truly help shape the future. 

Here are my three key themes from the conference and how I think communications teams should evolve in the coming years. 

Digital by default: more than 50 examples of councils using technology were on show in the Innovation Zone. Communication strategists need to be at the heart of service transformation using digital. We should have a lead role in decision-making on new digital platforms, provide internal change communications to help reinvent the back office and help the organisation to keep the customer at the heart of digital solutions. All too often the solution starts with the technology but of course should start with a deep understanding of our customers' behaviours and needs. 

Behaviour change and demand management: the chief executives' meeting on day one discussed demand management through understanding and changing behaviours. To be truly effective communications teams need to use ethnographic and behaviour change skills to fully understand people’s barriers to change. 

Service redesign and interventions should be based on this understanding, putting the customer in charge and tested for effectiveness using randomised control trials. We should not use behavioural insight to simply design more top-down solutions but to bring about a change for councils from provider to facilitator. Communications teams need to own this approach but some need new skills to deliver it.  

Get closer to policy: my best fringe event saw local government heavyweights Cllr Philippa Roe (Westminster) and Sir Richard Leese (Manchester) along with Lord Shipley of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Local Growth discuss devolution of power and money from central to local government. 

Communications teams must get closer to policy in order to support this transformational change and not just in the devolution debate. We can help our leaders influence decision makers, develop solutions with businesses and residents through innovative engagement; and help prepare dedicated public servants to become even better entrepreneurial problem solvers. Many of us have the skills to do this but need to be trusted as credible, resilient and strategic by leadership teams.   

The next few years will be crucial for local government and our policy, transformation and communication teams have a key role to play. Through Westco’s work with Westminster City Council and authorities across the country, we are helping our clients get to grips with the new technologies and the critical challenges around demand management and behaviour change. 

The next few years will be crucial for local government and I am confident communications teams will step up to the challenge.

Ian Farrow is head of external contacts at Westco Trading, a strategy and communications consultancy owned by Westminster City Council

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