Profile: Deborah Clark, London Borough of Hackney

Deborah Clark faces a tough challenge at the 'worst run place' in Britain

Hackney Town Hall sits a hundred yards or so from where a 15-day armed siege ended with the death of a lone gunman last week. Such high-profile incidents can damage the image of an area, but statistics have already damned the London Borough of Hackney much more effectively.

For each of the six key indicators of housing, services, education, health, employment and income, Hackney falls into the 20 most deprived areas in England - this makes it the second most deprived area in the country.

At the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) of all unitary authorities in December, the council was politely characterised as 'poor performing'.

Two months earlier, Deborah Clark had been appointed the council's first head of communications for two years. As a relative newcomer to council PR, she shows a gift for understatement, saying: 'Hackney has a long history of problems and negative press.' A few headlines from the last couple of years put it more bluntly: 'The worst run place in Britain?'; 'Council that has left Whitehall at wit's end' and 'Hapless Hackney faces £40m meltdown'.

A state registered nurse, Clark was a trade union official for the Confederation of Health Service Employees for six years up to the early 1990s. Wanting to find out what life in Parliament would be like, she worked as an assistant to Neil Gerrard, Labour MP for Walthamstow. Public affairs roles followed with the National Housing Federation and civil liberties organisation Liberty before she became CEO of the Restorative Justice Consortium, an umbrella organisation for justice groups. Consortium chair Margaret Carey says: 'She has enormous energy and is innately optimistic - two things she will need in bucketloads. But she is also realistic. She'll know she can't turn the tanker round immediately.'

The council's telephone systems are to be improved by the introduction of a corporate call centre which should dampen residents' frustration with an authority which, according to the CPA, is both not very good and hard to contact. Clark says the majority of senior managers have been replaced since 2000, but she admits: 'There is a lot of demoralisation (among staff) in many areas. What they want is stability. It is one thing the managers being on board but the staff are delivering services on the frontline.'

Monthly gatherings of senior management should ensure that departments know what the others are up to, with staff to receive written updates with their payslips in future. In internal comms 'we need to redevelop our sense of belonging to a corporate unit', she says. Residents themselves might be more interested in customer service.

Clark's comms team is motivated by what she refers to, more than once, as the 'challenge' of Hackney. 'Communications has been a battleground and the people in it have been firefighting,' she adds.

The last big PR initiative, well before Clark's time, was named 'Transforming Hackney'. 'It gave the impression that everything's going to change,' Clark explains. 'And it didn't. That doesn't help. The focus now is "quietly getting better".'

Hackney has nine per cent unemployment, above even inner London's average of seven per cent. The national average is 3.2 per cent. Meanwhile, communicating with residents who between them speak more than 80 languages brings its own challenges. Clark's own consultation strategy on PR is, inevitably, out to consultation at the moment but her role is essentially strategic, with her responsibilities expanding drastically between accepting the job and starting work, a headcount of five growing to eight, and finally 26.

Not all of these are directly in communications - Clark has a deputy, three PROs, a support officer handling media monitoring and a putative public consultation officer - but her remit now covers a fortnightly paper, Hackney Today, along with responsibility for the corporate call centre, the web team, the translations unit and, oddly, for standards across the borough's reception areas - 'How people are greeted, information on boards, how people are dealt with,' she explains.

So how will Clark know when Hackney's reputation has been improved?: 'When people know we have all the information in place and they know how to access it. When we are not in the Evening Standard as being the worst borough.'

This looks a long way off. A new website is to launch next month. 'The web is a key element of the way we'll be working,' she says. Yet this is a borough where internet access is low. Despite her enthusiasm, hearts must be sinking all across Hackney.

Restructuring a public organisation, with a new senior team, takes time and therefore providing an improvement in services will take longer.

The phrase 'quietly getting better' is well-chosen: it is the best all parties can hope for.

HIGHLIGHTS

1987: Trade union official, Confederation of Health Service Employees

1992: Political assistant to Neil Gerrard MP

1999: Director of PA, Liberty

2002: Head of comms, London Borough of Hackney.

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