Opinion: Code of conduct is so out of date

'Twenty years ago the 1986 Local Government Act set new rules for the practice of local authority communications, but since then communications has moved on, while the law has stood still', writes Alex Aiken.

Twenty years ago the 1986 Local Government Act set new rules for the practice of local authority communications. It introduced a Code of Conduct to prevent councils using public resources for party political purposes. It was necessary at the time, and remains important, but since then communications has moved on, while the law has stood still.

In the era of instant news and electronic transaction, we are governed by the 1986 Act and its predecessor, the 1972 Local Government Act. These prescribe which modes of communication we are allowed to deploy. The list includes ‘lectures, discussions and pictures'.

This may sound quaint, but local government cannot act unless it has the authority to do so. So, in theory, the new communication tools we use, from email to podcasts, could be challenged. In the past 20 years, several authorities have fallen foul of the code. It is unlikely that we would be censured, but there is confusion over the rules. More importantly, it inhibits some people from communicating effectively.

This autumn the Government's White Paper on local government will ask us to take the lead in ‘place-shaping' - building a strong local brand. To meet this challenge it should also include proposals to update the rules.

The Department for Communities and Local Government urgently needs to address three issues. First, the Code of Conduct should be replaced with a new protocol that emphasises balanced, proactive communication.

Second, the political restrictions should be more tightly defined to prevent taxpayers from funding party propaganda, while recognising that community leadership requires bodies to speak with authority on important issues using modern communication channels.

Third, the existing vague duty to ‘inform' using communications - still regarded as ‘discretionary' - should be replaced by putting communications on a statutory footing with a requirement to engage with, and reflect, local concerns.

Such reforms would give communicators a clear remit. The way we respond would tell us much about how far public service communications has matured since 1986.

Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council

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