Platform: PR can return more local power to the people - Local government used to be all about reducing costs but councils should use PR to persuade locals to define best value, says Sandy Blair

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.

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

Marketing Panel



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