Council rankings

Mary Cowlett examines the disparity in how councils are resourced

Council rankings
Council rankings

Are you a local authority PRO whose constant grumble is about staffing levels, and who routinely complains of under-resourcing when compared with the private sector? Or just a tax payer concerned at what you see as a generous allocation of public money for PR in your area?As council tax continues to rise year after year, local populations are, understandably, seeking further information on exactly where and how their money is being spent.

The communications department is therefore a key area for local authorities to develop to ensure their public is kept well informed of their role and their services.

Last year's Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) ratings have gone some way towards providing a benchmark of how well councils and their comms teams are faring, but do large-scale comms teams communicate any better with their public than smaller ones?

To find out more about the services council comms teams deliver, and how well they do it, PRWeek is publishing its first-ever ranking of the top 30 local authorities in England, ranked by the size of their comms team. The survey seeks to identify those organisations that strive to cut through the jargon of some local government communications, and present their council as a modern, accessible organisation.

PRWeek undertook telephone research at the end of August, contacting all unitary and metropolitan authorities in England, plus the London boroughs, to uncover personnel numbers, comms budget and size of population. Interviews were then conducted with a variety of council comms teams, in and outside of the top 30, to find out what communication strategies councils were putting in place to reach their public more effectively.

The clearest revelation of the survey was that the majority of council comms staff cover a broad range of communication remits. While a few work solely on media relations and PR campaigns, the majority of local authority comms teams provide add-on services. These can incorporate anything from design, events, market research and promotions, to internal communications, business development, customer care, websites, translation, print and sponsorship.

For example, at number five in the table, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council employs 25 communications staff members. Yet, in addition to straightforward press and PR, this team covers graphic design, research and consultation with citizens, the corporate website, marketing communications services, plus customer care.

It should be stressed that it would have been difficult to rank councils in terms of budgets, as there are variations in what each authority estimates as comms spend. Some councils, such as the London Borough of Newham at number four, have included salaries within their budgets, others, such as Birmingham City Council, have not.

The table does reveal a number of absences of metropolitan councils, including Liverpool City and Manchester City. Surprisingly, they only have five and nine members of staff in their comms team respectively, and therefore didn't make it into the top 30 rankings. And some councils, such as Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, said it was not their policy to release budget information on individual departments.

Nevertheless, a top ten cost per head of population table was also put together, to give some idea on how much money is spent on communicating to each individual in these local authorities. Does more money per head of population mean more effective communication strategies are in place?

At number two in the table, the London Borough of Haringey boasts a 30-strong communications team with a healthy budget of £1.2m, which works out as £5.03 per head for the 225,000-strong population. But despite centralising and boosting its comms services in 2001, the council received a 'weak' CPA rating from the Audit Commission.

Haringey head of communications Julie Hollings cites the Climbie Inquiry as the oprinciple reason, and points out: 'Many people expected us to be scored 'poor' (the lowest category) in the CPA'.

Indeed, the CPA report highlights some of the improvements the council has made in its social services since the death of Victoria Climbie in 2000. The auditors recognised that communications was a priority for the council and that a corporate comms audit had been completed, leading to the drafting of a strategy.

'It must be remembered that the restructured team had only been in place for one year - during some of the most difficult days of the Climbie Inquiry - and it was still early days,' adds Hollings.

At the other end of the scale, in terms of cost per head of population, Birmingham City Council (number 11), which also received a 'weak' CPA rating, appears to spend a miserly 5p per head on communicating with its one million residents.

It must be emphasised that Birmingham's given budget covers the comms department's operating costs only, and therefore on a like-for-like basis that figure would be considerably higher. But, pointing to the council's annual residents' opinion survey by MORI, Birmingham Post chief reporter Paul Dale states: 'There has been criticism that the council has not been getting across what it's doing.'

Indeed, public perception of local government has long been a problem and some authorities, such as the London Borough of Lambeth, have a legacy of organisational and financial failure.

'In part, councils have been caught up in the big picture of public services, where there is dissatisfaction with what the Government has promised and what has been delivered,' says Carol Grant, partner at local government specialist Grant Riches. 'But councils are not very good at telling people what they do for them.'

Communications should therefore be an integral part of council activity, stresses Eileen Brooks, joint head of comms at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, which is placed at number 25. 'It is easy to have a go at the local council, as with hefty council tax bills people think we are awash with money, when of course we're not. But it is public money, so it's important to get across what that money is being spent on,' she says.

Encouragingly, more councils are beginning to better understand the importance of communication. Southampton City Council, at number 17 in the table, recently worked with MORI to gauge resident satisfaction with a new waste management scheme it is rolling out across the area.

The poll revealed that by simply explaining to residents why the changes were taking place - through a mixture of media relations, leafleting and door-to-door visits - favourability for the scheme rose from 48 per cent to 70 per cent. 'When you fill the communications gap for the public, there is often less criticism of what you are doing,' admits media and comms manager David Bennett.

Likewise, Sheffield City Council, just outside the top 30, is working to extend its one-stop shop approach to comms and customer care, so that residents have one point of contact to access all its services and information.

'The idea is to gear all messages to internal and external audiences from one source,' says head of marketing and communications Carl Welham. 'But it also means people's priorities, and what they think of the council, are fed back more effectively.'

In addition, there are a number of ongoing initiatives that aim to engage local populations. For example, the Local Government Association (LGA) is running a Local Democracy Week (13-19 October) tailoring activities specifically towards young people.

LGA senior PR officer Julie Robertson explains why the event will be an opportunity for local councils to collectively promote and demystify the whole process of local government. 'With falling interest in local politics and declining turn-out for national and local elections, involving young people in planning and delivering services is essential,' she says.

Working with the Electoral Commission and the National Youth Agency, the LGA is also planning to run a number of events, including a one-day conference. Furthermore, around 12 councils - including the London Borough of Islington and Swindon Borough Council - are staging educational 'I'm a Councillor Get Me Out of Here' games in their areas, all of which are designed to garner local media and public interest.

PR challenges are set to increase, however, as councils are tasked with partnering other large public bodies, such as the police and health organisations.

'Councils will have to look carefully at how they communicate quite complicated messages about the range of functions they have in areas such as anti-social behaviour and crime prevention,' explains Grant.

As the table shows, there are large-scale comms teams whose local authoritiy CPA rating was weak, and some half the size whose rating was excellent.

But what is clear is that regardless of the size of the comms team, new communication initiatives need to be put into place if local authorities are to respond to people's concerns more effecitvely. Communication needs to be stepped up on the why, when and how of council decisions, confirming that council comms teams have to provide a lot more than just media relations.

COUNCIL RANKINGS TOP 30

Rnk Borough Type Staff Budget Popul- CPA

(pounds) ation

1 Greenwich London Borough 47 450,0002 215,000 fair

2 Haringey London Borough 30 1,131,000 225,000 weak

3 Newham London Borough 29 718,700 240,000 fair

4 Salford Met Authority 25 900,000 220,000 weak

5 Doncaster Met Authority 25 519,000 293,000 fair

6 Knowsley Met Authority 25 - 150,475 good

7 Waltham

Forest London Borough 23 800,000 220,000 poor

8 Kirklees Met Authority 22 700,000 400,000 excellent

9 East

Riding of

Yorkshire Unitary Authority 20 1, 267,475 320,000 good

10 Luton Unitary Authority 20 841,000 183,000 good

11 Birmingham Met Authority 20 49,9502 1,000,000 weak

12 Tower

Hamlets London Borough 201 - 196,000 good

13 York City Unitary Authority 19 460,0003 182,000 good

14 Warrington Unitary Authority 17 996,000 200,000 good

15 West-

minster London Borough 171 905,000 230,000+ excellent

16 Newcastle Met Authority 16 953,000 259,600 good

17 South-

ampton Unitary Authority 16 560,000 217,000 good

18 Southwark London Borough 16 550,000 240,000 weak

19 Leeds Met Authority 13 576,000 250,000 good

20 Gateshead Met Authority 13 - 197,000 excellent

21 North

Lincoln-

shire Unitary Authority 12 510,000 153,000 good

22 Wandsworth London Borough 12 - 266,000 excellent

23 Lewisham London Borough 11 653,000 248,000 good

24 Brent London Borough 11 240,000 263,464 fair

25 Rotherham Met Authority 111 229,265 250,000 fair

26 Hammer-

smith

& Fulham London Borough 11 200,000 166,000 excellent

27 Poole Unitary Authority 10.5 466,660 140,000 good

28 Hillingdon London Borough 10 1,012,000 243,000 fair

29 Ealing London Borough 10 652,000 301,553 fair

30 Barnsley Met Authority 10 538,1501 220,000 good

All figures part of telephone research between 25 and 29 August 2003.

Unless otherwise stated, budgets include staff salaries and staff

numbers incorporate providers of add-on services to press, PR and media

campaigns 1 only includes press, PR, media campaigns 2Budget is only

comms department operating costs 3 Central comms team controls £115,000 of budget, the rest is comms budget split over council

departments

- Every effort was made to contact all London boroughs, unitary and

metropolitan authorities within the time frame. Where comms teams have

the same numbers of staff they have been ranked by budget

- Profiles overleaf were chosen to represent a mix of authorities and

size of comms teams

THE BIGGEST SPENDERS

Rank Borough Type Cost per

head of

population (pounds)

1 Haringey London Borough 5.03

2 Warrington Unitary Authority 4.98

3 Luton Unitary Authority 4.60

4 Hillingdon London Borough 4.16

5 Salford Met Authority 4.09

6 East Riding of Yorkshire Unitary Authority 3.96

7 Westminster London Borough 3.93

8 Waltham Forest London Borough 3.64

9 North Lincolnshire Unitary Authority 3.33

10 Poole Unitary Authority 3.33

10 Newham London borough 2.99

All figures part of telephone research between 25 and 29 August 2003

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