Alex Aiken: Nurture relationships and build networks - don't just communicate

The 'noughties' were a decade of lost opportunity in terms of government reaching out to people.

Alex Aiken: Noughties were a missed opportunity
Alex Aiken: Noughties were a missed opportunity

The publication of the government's Citizenship Survey shows the perceived ability of people to influence local and national concerns declined during the previous decade. ? 

Ten years ago nearly half (44%) of people thought they could influence decisions in their local area - now only 37% feel this way. Similarly, feelings of influence on national decisions has fallen by a fifth from 25% to 20%. Most worryingly the number of people saying they are actively participating in civic life has fallen from 38% to 34%. Nationally, this equates to over two million people who are no-longer active.

These figures should be a cause for concern for public sector communicators as this downward trend is despite communications resources rising steadily during this period which begs the question - were we actually communicating or just broadcasting information?? 

Clearly, telling people about government services and how they can best access them remains important.

But the business of government communications has to be more than the business of managing news, issuing press releases and co-ordinating announcements. ? 

Indeed, it is also now clear that we need to move from ‘communication’ as we have been perceived as communicating, to conversation in terms of being seen to respond to and act on public concerns. ? 

We need to nurture relationships and build networks where dialogue about the services we provide are made in conversation. ? 

It’s also about treating people as citizens, not customers. In responding we don’t always have to do the fawning ‘suits you sir’ approach. In government the customer is not always right. ? 

Instead, we need to be brave enough to communicate that we can't always deliver everything, we have to make tough and at times unpopular choices and crucially, people have to be involved in delivering the solutions.

This all fits with the relentless development of digital media and its social application which offers government an opportunity to deliver two-way communications, facilitating a genuine dialogue.

There is, however, some positive news in the citizenship survey. Overall, our audience remains remarkably upbeat.

While there has been a hardening of mistrust in national politicians since the expenses scandal broke, over the last decade peoples' levels of trust in local councils and the police has remained relatively high, as has satisfaction with local areas, community cohesion and patriotism, particularly among the Pakistani community.

What remains constant though is that government communicators need to start a new conversation with people and in this decade demonstrate that they are listening and responding to the public's views and concerns.

In doing so the prize is to create a new communications landscape and layers of influence in which we engage and inform people while building a genuine dialogue about the services we provide.

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

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