Alex Aiken: Suffolk shows we've lost the battle on pay

Criticism of the appointment of the £180,000 head of communications for Suffolk highlights how public servants have lost the battle on public sector pay.

Alex Aiken: incentivise staff or become whipping boys
Alex Aiken: incentivise staff or become whipping boys

It’s not just about a head of communications salary. The wider case for serious salaries for senior jobs seems to have become a pointless fight. Public opinion is settled against public fat cats and chief executives face having their salaries censured if they breach the £140,000 benchmark set by the Prime Minister.

The core argument seems strong. You pay high salaries to attract the best to improve the lives of people in an area. It is surely worth remunerating a Chief Executive £200,000 if he or she can lever inward investment in the millions, deliver comparable efficiency savings and drive up satisfaction with public services.

But public relations people should consider how we failed to make the case for salaries which were commensurate with the responsibilities of building great places to live and strong communities. Unless we learn the lessons we will fail to win the wider PR battle in the years ahead, and the credibility of the organisations we represent will be sorely compromised.

The case for high public pay for high performance failed for four core reasons.

First, we have yet to learn to effectively focus on communicating for the citizen, rather than to the citizen. We have not mastered the art of PR that focuses on engaging people in the work of public services or focusing on showing how we are improving the key things that drive reputation – frontline services, value for money and how we deal with customers.

Second, the failure to craft a convincing narrative on local success. A cursory look at media coverage over the past five years will show acres of cyberspace and newsprint dedicated to tales of local government waste. We seem to have been remarkably good at own goals, from failing to collect the rubbish to prosecuting people for minor infractions of the law. Yet we have often failed to show how major regeneration projects or innovation in social services have produced massive benefits.

Third, politicians probably didn’t help. The parliamentary expenses scandal and the economic downturn made people more sceptical of government, and in turn they have set the bar higher for perceived value for money from public services.

Fourth and most importantly, perhaps, we didn’t deliver what was expected by the public. The Place Survey for all its imperfections showed an increasing appreciation of the place people lived, but a declining satisfaction with the authority. Many seemed to dismiss this as a statistical fluke. Perhaps communicators failed to warn their chief executives after the 2008 Place Survey that a real and sustained drive to improve reputation – in terms of appreciation of, and access to, services was required to reverse this damaging trend.

In summary, public service managers failed the L’Oreal ‘Because you’re worth it’ test. Putting this right and recovering the reputation of senior staff in public service will require a single minded focus on one single question each day – ‘how are we achieving value for money for the people we serve?’

If we are to regain public trust and justify senior salaries we have to educate internally and communicate externally how we are making every pound count. Each local authority should embrace the new drive to transparency and publish spending and salaries online.

Every public authority should incentivise staff and challenge residents and businesses to identify how costs can be cut and services improved.

Unless we embrace this new approach to public sector PR we are doomed to be the whipping boys of the new national mood. ? 

Alex Aiken is director of communications and strategy at Westminster City Council

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