OPINION: Public want more info from councils

Local government received a massive endorsement last week with high scores for its many services. The quaintly named Best Value Performance Indicators survey showed that public satisfaction with basic council service provision, from refuse collection to libraries, is rising.

But the news is not all good. Overall satisfaction with local authorities fell by two per cent from the last survey in 2004. This was partly because people felt less informed this year than they did three years ago. In this regard, measures that influence reputation – such as whether the council provides value for money, keeps its promises and allows people to influence decisions – fared particularly badly.

The conclusion appears to be that people appreciate the services, but don’t understand the role of the local authority in their delivery and how it provides value for money. So, as the guardians of corporate reputation, council comms teams have to redouble their efforts.

The Department for Communities and Local Government draws an early conclusion from the survey that ‘there appears to be a relationship between satisfaction and opportunities for par­ti­cipation and influence’. If this is the case, we must recalibrate the communication effort from broad­cast communications to involvement campaigns.

This could take the form of wider participation in budget planning and a concerted programme to go out into the community to explain what the council has delivered. Critically this approach relies on good consultation, followed by evidence of action and then explaining the action to the community. Many councils are very good at announcing things but fail to remember Alastair Campbell’s advice on government communi­cations: ‘There are three parts to any story, the build-up, the event and the follow-through’.

We launch, but too often we don’t prepare or follow through, so people believe they haven’t participated in, or influenced, the outcome.

The BVPI survey shows that informed citizens are four times as likely to be satisfied, but feel less informed and satisfied with their council than they did in 2004. Closing this gap is a duty for communications teams – and also a requirement for confidence in local democracy.

Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council

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