OPINION: Councils better off bypassing media

Running council commun­ications must be a very frustrating experience at the best of times, and no more so than in London.

As the latest annual figures from the Audit Commission show, not only does the capital have some of the best-performing councils in the country, but has also scored an ‘above average’ satisfac­tion rating among residents for the first time.

And yet, as anyone on the streets of London will tell you, local councils continue to have a generally poor reputation. Low-profile, remote and bureaucratic were just some of the adjectives used by residents to describe their local authority in a recent survey conducted by the Local Government Association (LGA).

You can hear the cries from town hall comms departments all over London: just what do we have to do to make people realise we are actually doing a good job?

It is not even about money. Wandsworth and Sutton, among the highest-scoring councils in London in terms of Audit Commission performance ratings, are both proposing a 4.9 per cent rise in council tax this year. This is the same rise as Harrow – which is one of the lowest-performing boroughs.

So low council tax and good performance do not necessarily go hand in hand. What, then, really makes the difference as far as residents are concerned?

Sandy (now Lord) Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the LGA, put his finger on it when he said recently: ‘Good communication is central to the vision. It is essential to reinvigorating local democracy for getting closer to people.’

Getting close to people is what councils do best.  They actually take care of an awful lot of our day-to-day needs and services. This gives them a unique opportunity to demonstrate how often they work for us – and get things right.

Using the direct approach to communicate with residents may well be more effective than going through third parties such as news media. No wonder one local paper in Tower Hamlets is taking the borough to task for producing its own newsletter – clearly some just can’t stomach the idea that newsprint could actually convey positive messages about a council.

Luke Blair is a director of the London Communications Agency

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