Local authorities have a new need for PR as we approach the
Millennium; and it’s not just a question of improving battered
reputations. The new Labour Government has set itself and the nation
some tough challenges in seeking improvement to a range of services
without additional cost.
It has also committed itself to a positive drive for democratic renewal -
extending the opportunity for communities and individuals to participate
in the governance of their area. At the macroregional level this is being
pursued through the restored Parliament for Scotland and a new Assembly
for Wales. These are likely to be followed in due course by an Assembly
for London and perhaps Regional Assemblies in England. At local authority
level there are proposals for increased public involvement in the review
of both general expenditure plans and specific proposals.
Prominent among these proposals are the emerging arrangements for securing
best value in local authority services. Management culture in much of
local government during recent years has been dominated by the pursuit of
lowest cost through market testing. As a consequence quite basic services
such as roads maintenance and grass cutting have often been seen to
diminish in quality. Working together with new central Government, local
authorities now have an opportunity to increase quality while retaining
reasonable measures for controlling costs. This requires them to strike a
balance which the public recognises as best value.
But what does value mean? What is best value for a refuse collection
service? How do you put a value on a planning decision? And whose value is
it? The applicants who want a quick decision, the neighbours who don’t
want it at all, the local community who wants it but not quite there?
Involving the public in measuring best value will require a very
considerable PR input.
Councils will need help in promoting knowledge and understanding; in
giving recognition; in identifying public priorities; in developing
confidence in communities to exercise judgments; in helping to ensure that
essential issues are recognised and sensible choices made.
Just as businesses cannot expect many customers unless they work hard on
making their product attractive, so local government cannot expect the
public to participate in consultative democracy unless they make
involvement interesting and worthwhile.
We will be looking to the PR profession, both internally and externally,
and to the media, to gain public attention and interest. We will need to
learn new and improved techniques for giving information, for encouraging
feedback, and for ensuring equity in assessing contributions.
We will also need to be more confident ourselves in receiving feedback, in
weighing public opinion and explaining why things have to be done or
cannot be done. These involve new competences and skills not traditionally
associated with the customary view of those who work in the Town Hall.
So this is an open invitation to the PR profession to get its thinking cap
on and see how it can contribute to increased participation of the public
in community governance without adding to the cost. And while you’re at it
for the internal PR units how you will show best value in the delivery of
your element of the public service.
Sandy Blair is chief executive of Newport County Borough Council and
chairman of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives PR and