This summer, the media was full of stories of local authorities doing apparently daft things. Forcing ‘elf ’n’ safety’ rules on volunteers digging flower beds and banning barbecues, for example.
The relative dearth of news makes summer a difficult time for government to be seen to be implementing laws in a reasonable way. But local government does regularly commit acts that most people would condemn as a waste of money.
The new role of councils as community leaders depends on a perception of competent leadership. And that means people and partner organisations being willing to follow. Councils should be setting an example, demonstrating ambition and showing they can deliver valued local services.
Look at Manchester’s transition over the past decade; that’s what great leadership, delivery and communications can achieve.
This is the time for heads of communication to challenge their leading politicians to set out their plans over the winter. That way, when the new council tax is set in March, they will be in a position to say ‘we have achieved this with your money’. The comms team should be plotting and publicising milestones towards these goals using every tool in the public relations armoury, from media to community meetings, mailings and the web to highlight progress. South Tyneside’s ‘You Said, We Did’ campaign is a model in this area.
At the same time the internal communications should challenge colleagues for ideas for ‘sensible working’, reflecting on how they can make work less bureaucratic, more focused on people and avoiding policies that damage reputation by repeatedly digging up roads or cutting down trees. Get chief officers ‘back to the floor’ like Bromsgrove did last year and identify issues for action.
This may lead to the start of a new culture in local government. Rather than focusing on regulating, or restricting, local government might want to lobby to lighten the legal burden on people. This would be in tune with the prevailing public climate. Local authorities on the side of people? Now there’s an extraordinary thought for the next silly season.
Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council