Opinion: Communicating value for money is essential

What works? The New Labour mantra could well be applied to local public service communications.

At present there is no more than a weak relationship between expenditure on many aspects of communications and resident perceptions. The Local Government Association’s determination to finally do something about the relatively low rating of individual councils, compared to many of the services they deliver, presents big opportunities for the more proactive communications teams, and challenges for the less effective.

MORI’s research over the last twenty years consistently highlights a set of core issues and services, that if delivered well, would improve the reputation of local government – these are street scene and the public realm. While the big ticket services of education and social care have relatively little impact on overall reputation – most people do not use them – we need to build awareness of these often invisible services that most people take for granted.

Over the next year, the LGA and IDeA will be pushing for all authorities to sign up to core actions that will boost their own image locally, covering communications, street scene and the public realm, demonstrating value for money, and staff responsiveness/accessibility.

A consistent set of core behaviours on communications for all Councils will be vital. For example, in terms of resident perceptions, all the evidence shows that annual home delivery of a decent A-Z of services is a no-brainer – far more effective than even the best newsletter.

Leaflets accompanying council tax bills are often a missed opportunity to demonstrate vfm – admittedly those folks in Finance aren’t very user friendly, but authorities like Wychavon show what can be done with this key opportunity to prove that money is being spent on things that matter.

A key finding from our work is that there is no relationship between actual council tax levels and the single strongest driver of local authority reputation – value for money. Communication is key - Those who feel the council keeps them well informed are far more likely to believe they are getting value for money.

This shift will challenge the communications profession to justify expenditure – some councils putting out newsletters twice a month have worse ratings than those who do it only four times a year – because the content is drab, uninteresting, and hackneyed.

We will also need to look at our own skills – too many ex-journalists go into Council Communications departments. What the research shows is that it would be good to have some marketing professionals as well. If local government is to work collectively on its reputation, it is going to have to be much more professional in how it sells what it does to local people.

“Building the Reputation of Local Government” will be launched later this year. For more information email Reputation@lga.gov.uk.

Ben Page, Director, MORI Social Research Institute on the Reputation project for Local Government. Ben is on secondment to the LGA.

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