Alex Aiken: Oliver Letwin's comments on nudge unit are 'dispiriting'

Few PR managers would survive telling a council scrutiny committee that they doubted whether their work 'will have any effect whatsoever'. You'd expect that swift budget cuts and fundamental change would follow.

Alex Aiken: Look to local Government for behaviour change
Alex Aiken: Look to local Government for behaviour change
Yet this is what Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet minister responsible for the government’s ‘nudge’ or behavioural change team, told the House of lords Science committee about the work of the £500,000 unit.

It’s dispiriting that at a time when budgets are under necessary scrutiny that government can afford to spend this sort of money without apparently being clear about the outcomes. But perhaps the ‘nudge’ team need to be ‘nudged’ to look outside Whitehall at the work that is being done across the country to change behaviour for the public good with impressive results.

They could go to Sutton where the smarter travel scheme has delivered a 75% increase in cycling or to Liverpool where local public services have run a series of ground-breaking health campaigns, working with the private sector. Then there’s work on community safety in Southwark and recycling in Leicestershire – to name a few.  

The new and much maligned Code of Conduct on local authority publicity explicitly empowers councils to undertake this sort of work, saying ‘publicity by local authorities may seek to influence the attitudes of local people or public behaviour’ in terms of health, crime and community issues.

This is an important new tool in the PR arsenal. Probably as a sector we have been too obsessed with new and glamorous channels like Twitter and Facebook to think and focus on how we improve and deliver integrated PR campaigns, focused on outcomes, not outputs, that deliver measurable returns, and can be evaluated in terms of cash saved or behaviour changed.

Tackling this campaign deficiency is hard. It means better research for campaigns, understanding policy, clear objectives and resources for evaluation. It also means changing the DNA of public sector PR offices from thinking ‘what should we say this week’ to thinking how can we improve the lives of the people we serve today’. It means a focus on audiences, not the whims of senior managers. And it also means trial and error. Not every initiative will work, and learning will breed best practice over time. But unless we can go down this route we will always be an easy target for the savings scalpel when money is tight.

The linking of councils with public health improvement work will mean the need for cost effective communications to encourage healthy lifestyles will become an even greater priority for local government. This should help develop the credibility and scope of council communications teams, working with health service colleagues.  

And the industry bodes can and should take a lead. The current CIPR ‘Excellence’ public sector award recognises those who promote ‘the achievements of a public sector organisation to its stakeholders’. This focus on promotion is very old fashioned, and all industries bodies need to recognise the massive advances in local and national public service communication and start rewarding those who have changed  behaviour and can deliver savings to the public purse.  

That in itself would start ‘nudging’ better performance from PR people.
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council

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