Alex Aiken: Councils need to up their game

The long days of summer are usually accompanied by ever resourceful hacks filling their pages for the traditional 'silly season' with increasingly outlandish stories.

Alex Aiken: calling for council PROs to stop PR gaffes
Alex Aiken: calling for council PROs to stop PR gaffes

Last year’s summer folly was the apparent presence of a terrifying man-eating shark off the coast of Cornwall. It turned out to be a basking whale.

I can’t help but feel this year has been different. The biggest story to come out of Cornwall so far has been the birth of the Prime Minister’s daughter.

Journalists instead have been turning their sights to the public sector, and a more active government comms machine has been happily feeding the beast as it prepares the nation for October's Comprehensive Spending Review.

The public sector has proved a happy hunting ground, providing ample fodder of spending decisions which The Taxpayers’ Alliance derides as 'barmy', and which serve to erode trust in the public sector generally.

A £190,000 bridge to allow dormice to cross the road safely, a £36,000 'virtual' town hall on Second Life and £5,000 on a mid-summer's Christmas party complete with Christmas trees and artificial snow, are just a few of the more bizarre examples which spring to mind, fairly or unfairly.? 

In this new age of austerity where every penny is supposed to count, comms professionals need to up their game in this area and ensure the actions of their organisation are in line with the public mood, and must be prepared to intervene at the highest levels.

It is central to our remit to advise council leaders and chief executives. Anything that is not a sensible use of taxpayers money should not see the light of day. It is no longer good enough to simply try and manage the fallout of such stories once they get into the public domain.? 

And with council spending above £500 due to be published online from October, we can only expect more of the same over the coming year, but magnified on a grander scale as the cuts which are coming in the CSR, expected to be between anything from 25% - 40%, start to bite.

While the public may expect, and by and large currently support, cuts, once they are implemented this will be a different matter.

Talking of welcoming cuts is easier if you do not feel directly affected. But once the inevitable service cuts are made, it's those organisations which deal directly with people which will come into the firing line. ? 

Many councils, however, are unfortunately not prepared for the scale of cuts that are heading their way and urgently need to reconfigure their priorities if they are to retain the confidence of the communities they serve.

But with falling government grants and reductions in income, as communication experts it is our duty to ensure that councils are committed to focussing on core services such as street cleaning and rubbish collection, with the focus on value for money hardwired into your organisational DNA, rather than bridges to help dormice cross the road.

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

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