CPA measures can shake out the lies

Local authorities occasionally exaggerate, and sometimes just plain lie, when presenting results. I have seen it first hand when judging industry awards, and this tendency to present Soviet-style statistics diminishes our profession.

Previous examples I have seen include a council claiming an inflated resident 'informed' rating, to help win a PR award. Also on the list is a county authority that said one of its publications was self-financing, when most of the advertising was council material.

These mischievous actions are a result of the lack of agreement over measuring the impact of our work, and a failure to rigorously review results, perhaps compounded by evaluation companies selling over-complex systems that do not offer an industry standard.

Local government PR urgently needs a set of measures by which we can benchmark our work, and we should use the debate around the new 'customer-focused' Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) to agree robust measures. Four tests could be adopted immediately.

The first test is for information. Statistics on how informed residents feel should be the main measure of community impact. Our reaction – 'accounting for resident views' – is also vital. 

Second is quality of publications. The test here is how widely the flagship publication is read by residents and businesses, and whether they believe it increases their knowledge of council services.

Third comes staff advocacy – knowing how well informed employees feel about organisational goals, what they think of internal comms and whether they would speak highly of the council.

Fourth is media relations – the conundrum of communications evaluation. My preference is to start with a basic 'positive, neutral, negative' rating, such as the system employed by Nottinghamshire, as long as there is a strict protocol for assessing cuttings.

These measures are universal, clear, easy to implement and independently verifiable. When local government can agree a set of common measures we'll be able to properly judge performance. One day I hope the Audit Office will have a league table of local authority communicators: a communications CPA, which for all its faults would be better than living a lie.

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