Public Sector: Local advocates are the answer

It is time for government to say sorry and to use George, Stefan and Mrs Johnson to reconnect with the people it serves (more of which later).

Government's reputation has taken a huge battering recently and this manifests itself as a loss of confidence about how to respond to a public concerned over the conduct of its politicians and the value for money of the services it receives.

The Local Government Association conference in Harrogate last week was characterised by a defensive mindset. Senior councillors were obsessed with the looming prospect of cuts to services and how they would explain this to their electorates.

A frustration with government is dangerous for democracy. Repairing trust will require a huge effort from public services at every level to re-engage members of the public, who despite their doubts crave information from government. But this cannot be a top-down campaign. It needs to be built from the grassroots and use citizens to explain to their neighbours how government can improve their lives.

Take the example of George, the community leader who helps his council identify frail pensioners who need help. And Stefan, a hairdresser who is used as a council advocate to his customers. Then there is Mrs Johnson, who went public about the dangers of underage drinking, backing a council campaign. There are thousands of such advocates of effective government in the UK. There could be hundreds of thousands more, but we need to listen to them.

PR practitioners have come to over-rely on mass communications channels, broadcasting policies through the news media, website and the council magazine. At a time when people are questioning the purpose and ethics of government, we have to engage in a face-to-face campaign to rebuild trust.

To start this campaign, we have to arrange neighbourhood meetings, engage social media, consult and feed back. It is time for the man in Whitehall and the town hall to get out into the community, where he would find talking is better value for money than expensive advertising campaigns.

Alex Aiken is a director of comms at Westminster City Council

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