Alex Aiken: sober times at the LGA conference

This week's annual Local Government Association conference is a much more reflective and sober event than previous years.

Alex Aiken: the party is over
Alex Aiken: the party is over

The party is clearly over and the council leaders and chief executives who are in Bournemouth are hearing some uncomfortable messages about the need to do things differently. Ministers and their advisers say that command and control is over, transparency is in and ambition will have to match a 25 per cent reduction in resources.

Leading councillors have discussed the need to communicate these changes well to local communities. It’s a sign of the strong position of council PR that many recognise the critical role of communications in maintaining reputation in an age of austerity. Fringe events on communications have been full and advice from the LGA and LGcommunications PR experts in high demand.

But council leaders are realistic in understanding what needs to be done and frank in saying that communications, like other functions is going to have to plan for a significant reduction in capacity – fewer communicators and fewer campaigns.

The reality is that PR will take a greater hit than the 25 per cent average given that support services will rightly take more of the burden than the frontline. So PR leaders in public service now need to develop a three year plan on how they can deliver high quality communications with at least a third less of the budget that they have today.

The starting point in all this, as the new Reputation Campaign makes clear, is to align council strategy, communications and service delivery in a realistic way. This is the ‘what do you want to be famous for?’ question and in the weeks after Bournemouth and the Emergency Budget every head of communications should have this conversation with their leader and chief executive.

The next point is to think about what you spend – whether your budget is £100,000 or £10million and consider whether if you started afresh you would organise your communications in the way that they are currently configured and what impacts they do have and what outcomes they should have for your audiences.

Then you have another fundamental choice. Do you plan to go it alone or can you merge, share or trade your service with neighbouring authorities? Blackburn with Darwen have led the way on this and London authorities are actively sharing communications functions. You probably cannot afford to go it alone anymore and the traditional rivalries, between for example, county and district, will have to be put aside to share capacity and costs and run joint campaigns.

Don’t make the mistake of going for grand plans from the start. Do be clear about your goals – better results with a shared team, but start with first steps and confidence building measures, as Buckinghamshire have done with their joint public service magazine.

After that the first person you should put on the PR Teamsheet in this World Cup week is the research or evaluation officer. We can always get good media or campaigns people, but the person who will really count in the future in the person in your team or council who provides the evaluation that demonstrates that communication counts.

This is the biggest reputational challenge of the decade. The future will be tough for public services, but those who are fastest to reconfigure will retain the confidence of the communities they serve.

 

Alex Aiken is director of communications at Westminster Ciy Council

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