Alex Aiken: A new era of public service communications

This week, a new era will start for public service communications. A new government which will face an unprecedented battle for public support to deliver spending cuts which will inevitably mean retrenching communications spending.

Alex Aiken: public service comms needs to change
Alex Aiken: public service comms needs to change

Public service PR will have to change to meet this challenge. But rather than seeking to tackle each initiative as it emerges we should consider what we want to achieve over the next couple of years and then advise ministers and local authority leaders accordingly.

There seem to be three main objectives for public communicators. First, explain what has to be done to tackle the deficit. Second, set out how frontline services can be protected during this period. Third show how locally and nationally government can work together to deliver efficient and effective service – meeting the first two goals.

Tackling the deficit is likely to require government to engage the public in understanding how spending in some areas of public service will either reduce, or at least not enjoy the increases in resources they have enjoyed in recent years. 

Creating an understanding in this area will require an open and transparent approach, involving people in making the choices. The current public perception is that we do offer meaningful involvement in making decisions. Councils very rarely get over 40 per cent ratings for ‘resident involvement’. Now is the time to tackle that perception with campaigns that allow local people a clear say in how we prioritise services.

More stringent tests should also be applied to communications spending. In opposition the Conservative Party said that it would subject national campaigns to an outcome test in terms of what behaviours the activities were designed to change. This seems to be a sensible approach, locally and nationally, and the head of the COI has put more robust evaluation at the forefront of his drive to improve government campaigns.

Communication managers should test how far their planned activities will demonstrably change public behaviour for the public good and how that can be measured and justified. This doesn’t take huge effort or resources. A simple test is whether you can justify a campaign to a group of taxpayers in a discussion. Would it seem like good use of money to them? Would it seem sensible if it was reported in the local newspaper? This should lead to the retiring of vanity publications, campaigns of limited impact and pointless press releases.

The new agenda should also mean communicators working together to deliver the ‘total place’ agenda which seems to have a wide degree of political consensus. Currently fire, police, health and council communicators dance around the notion of a single local public service. They like the idea in practice, but are reluctant to propose it forcefully to their superiors. This has to change. Every area should start working towards aligning strategy, running joint campaigns, merging publications and then its operations.

We are all in post to deliver safer, healthier and better informed communities and the sooner we deliver this, the better we will be able to weather the political and economic uncertainty.

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