Meeting the first challenge of new responsibilities means understanding the government’s plans to empower people such as the potential for local referendums on any issue, votes to veto excessive council tax rises and requirements to publish all spending over £500.
All these measures point to giving the public and pressure groups a more significant voice in the debate about the conduct of our local governments. And these ‘online auditors’ will probably be more vociferous critics – and potential advocates than the soon to be disbanded Audit Commission.
Heads of Communication used to puzzle about how to publicise the results of the worthy but dull annual Comprehensive Performance Assessments with their star ratings. Now they will face a monthly public performance challenge with the publication of each set of spending figures.
The public relations response will have to involve much earlier publication of all available data, internal communications that puts a premium on seeing the value for money argument in every decision and much stronger and regular communications with community leaders.
The second challenge is that of the forthcoming spending decisions which will divide authorities into two groups. First those who engage with their communities to demonstrate leadership through tough times, manage announcements and then a second group who will appear to be councils in crisis, leaking news of cuts day after day, and refusing to face the public to explain the issues.
The Cabinet Office have produced ‘Better Together’, whose first principle is the importance of ‘timely and honest communications’ between partners in preparing for cuts. It’s a good starting point, but the truth is that consultation can create anger in communities unless authorities are prepared to feed back and act on the results. Demonstrably leading the debate and showing you have a plan for handling cuts is critical.
Communications managers must be at the centre of these discussions because corporate communications’ task is to manage public expectation and demonstrate that for every cut there is a service preserved. Crucially, prudence starts at the top and the centre. If your chief executive is being forced to defend a £300,000 salary or expensive HR or IT resources, you probably need to start urging corporate savings before the front line is reduced in scale.
New responsibilities and the financial challenges faced by government at every level will require strong leadership, great communications and fast responses to public information requests, whether they come via twitter or the local newsdesk.
There may even be a place for the ‘Town Hall Pravda’ in the mix. As the challenges emerge councils are realising the value of their core publication. Two London authorities which announced the scrapping of their publications to fit in with the proposed new code on publicity now have plans to bring them back, albeit at a reduced frequency. Communication, as the Cabinet Office says, is ‘good practice’.
Alex Aiken is director of communications and strategy at Westminster City Council