Alex Aiken: Public service comms is in the doldrums

One year on from the election of a new government, public service communications is in the doldrums.

Alex Aiken: Government comms has been 'hollowed out'
Alex Aiken: Government comms has been 'hollowed out'
A combination of budget cuts, ministerial scepticism and local retrenchment has hollowed out government communications. The permanent secretary for communications has gone, the COI is facing abolition, councils are being told how many publications to issue and government departments are seeing their director roles being downgraded. Many good public relations staff are being - or have been - made redundant.

The anniversary of the formation of the Coalition should serve as a point of reflection and renewal for those working in public relations in government service – locally and nationally.

There are four areas where we are going to have to work in the year ahead to re-establish our role and credentials.

First, pooling knowledge and resources across organisations. There must be an accelerated move towards shared services between local authorities and probably government departments.

One press office should be able to serve three district councils; one marketing team should be able to supply several government departments. Campaign templates should be common and transferable. Central government should utilise local authorities to deliver campaigns as the Department of Health and Department for Education are already seeking to do in areas like summer activities, diet and child protection.

Second, a stronger focus on changing behaviour for the public good. The Coalition agreement set out the ambition to focus on finding ‘intelligent ways’ to ‘enable people to make better choices’. This should be central to the daily work of all those involved in government PR – finding ways to improve lives. The successful Change4Life campaign provides a model of what can be achieved and should be embraced by all.

Third, to be more fearless in presenting the facts and recommended course of action to our leadership teams. Many heads of communication seem to lack the courage, belief or knowledge to argue a coherent case of action with their chief executive. There are still too many publicised examples of silly policies and daft decisions for it to be true that the majority of communication teams have a grip on their organisation – across all local public services.

And it is also worth considering whether central government communicators made a sufficiently robust case to retain the talent, campaigns and operations that had been painstakingly built up in the years of the last government. Despite the cut backs now is the time to invest in research to understand rapidly changing public perceptions and use this as the foundation on which to argue the case for a particular approach which allows the PR team to sit at the top table in the organisation.  

Finally, demonstrating value for money to the public and our staff. The recent LGInsight poll on attitudes towards local authorities showed the biggest fall in all indicators was on perceived value for money from their council, which in turn undermines satisfaction with local government.

In the year ahead public service communicators should be financial watchdogs. If there is one role we have over the next year, it is to prove to the public that our authorities can manage through tough times by warning of the consequence of ill thought-out spending decisions. An external campaign and internal value for money initiative – ‘spend it like it’s yours’ should be the central part of every local authority’s communications work. Unless we can show that we understand the scale of the economic hardship being experienced by households, we will lose public trust. The reduction in size of most communications teams will be an inevitable part of this process. The halving of the budget of a good team like Cambridgeshire’s probably provides a benchmark in this respect.

The second year of the coalition government will be as challenging as the first. It will require PR managers to show leadership to their organisation, innovate with colleagues to share resources and demonstrate real value through their work.  

The communications landscape has changed, for better or for worse and we have to change to create a new model for public communications.   

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

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