OPINION: Communicate better ’cos we’re watching

OK, I admit, it was a bit sneaky. But the results of our recent mystery shopping exercise do prove interesting reading for fellow PR professionals.

Our report serves as a useful reminder that no matter how many millions we spend, if our front-line communi­cations are not right the rest falls by the wayside.

Our mystery shoppers, posing as people asking about care for an older relative, contacted all 150 local councils in England. Encouragingly, council staff mostly gave good advice over the phone.

However, their written information varied considerably in quality. While a handful produced good information, nearly a quarter could not offer anything. In 11 per cent of cases where they committed to send information, it never arrived. And more than 40 councils were unable to provide information suitable for someone with poor eyesight. In one case, having asked for advice on social care, we got a booklet on what to do if someone dies in England and Wales.

We have chosen not to reveal how individual councils performed. This is not a naming and shaming exercise. However, I hope our report, Hello, How Can I Help? (see www.csci.org.uk), will prompt councils to act in response.

Good communications and strong customer-service values must be central to service delivery in local councils. Providing public information must be seen as a core service. It should be carefully co-ordinated across all channels and linked to the overall strategic aims of the council.

The lessons from our mystery shop could equally be applied across all council services. Advice given over the telephone should mirror written information sent as a follow-up and match what appears on the website. Other organisations that provide relevant information should be signposted. And there should be a better dialogue between public sector bodies in order to co-ordinate information and avoid giving conflicting messages to the public.

Sorted? Not quite. In 1998, almost the same recommendations were made by the then Social Services Inspectorate and published by the Department of Health. Nearly ten years on, in an age where information is the key to individual empowerment, we need a better co-ordinated approach. Local councils, we’ll be in touch.

Robin Banerji is head of communications, Commission for Social Care Inspection

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