Alex Aiken: The messages on reform must improve

This is the most exciting time to work in public service for a generation. The pace of reform and the scale of budget reductions require brilliant leadership, first class management and exceptional communications from district councils to Downing Street.

Alex Aiken: 'It is clear that the reform agenda is under strain'
Alex Aiken: 'It is clear that the reform agenda is under strain'
As we approach the first anniversary of the coalition government it’s time to consider how the reputation of public service stands and what public relations can do to manage the reputation of government during these times of change and austerity.

It’s clear that the reform agenda is under strain. The NHS Confederation has just told that government that changes to health services are imperiled by poor communications and require ‘a compelling narrative about why the reforms matter’.

This is evidently correct, as the personal intervention by the prime minister in the NHS debate demonstrates. But other reforms to education and changes to police services also seem to be suffering from an absence of a coherent story while the drive to embed messages around the Big Society seems stalled.  

And locally, it seems clear that the government won the first round of the ‘cuts’ battle in terms of public perception. The drumbeat of stories of wasteful, incompetent local authorities has created a view, held by around 40% of people that councils were crying wolf over the cuts, and this contributed to a 20% fall in satisfaction with councils between December and March. Even the role of the PR manager is under threat with the secretary of state for communities announcing that Essex County Council ‘is such a good authority it really does not need a spin doctor. This is a post they should leave vacant.’
So, as we start a new financial year government at every level requires a better story and a focus on value for money. But it also needs public authorities to develop a meaningful conversation with the people they serve, and staff who work for them in terms of explaining what changes are proposed, consulting carefully and demonstrating what changed as a result of the conversation. Some councils are already doing this – from Nottinghamshire’s ‘Big Conversation’ through to Richmond’s ‘Barefoot Consultation’ - but they are not standard practice.

Every PR manager should take part in the wider debate about the reform, role and objectives of public services in the years ahead to shape the public conversation. Chief executives have long asked for better advice from government communicators, and now is the time to give it as organisations struggle to come to terms with the immediate impact of cuts and reduced resources. The Welsh Assembly Government’s new public engagement project, with its focus on a common story for public service around quality of life and shared provision shows how local and central government can work together to promote great services.

We have many good route maps for helping organisations navigate the challenges ahead. The Local Government Association, COI and others have produced a stream of readable advice about how to manage communications, from the seminal LGA ‘Reputation Campaign’ to COI guides to evaluation and public engagement. This material provides the foundation from which credible advice can be offered, but too often even heads of communications ignore it and act like rabbits on the headlights when faced with problems, rather than coolly considering the strategy, the research and objectives and then acting.

The story for public service over the next two years will oscillate between examples of chaos, waste and failure and success stories of reforms which have worked, engaged citizens and delivered better outcomes with fewer resources. The difference between the two will partly be built by PR managers who craft an honest and credible story about what their organisation wants to achieve, deal honestly and robustly with their leadership, ensure consistency in delivery and involves people - creating the public advocates who will enhance the reputation of public service. If you are not doing this, Eric Pickles might be right; do you really need a head of communications?  
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council

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