Alex Aiken: Shared service activity should exemplify the age of austerity

This week Kensington, Hammersmith and Westminster councils launched their joint 'Summer in the City' initiative.

Alex Aiken: 'Highly unlikely' that public spending will change for the next five years
Alex Aiken: 'Highly unlikely' that public spending will change for the next five years

This unites activities for young people across central London as a single campaign, jointly promoted to encourage healthy lifestyles and help deter anti-social behaviour over the summer break.

It’s an example of the sort of shared service activity that should exemplify the age of austerity. And the summer is a good time for government communicators to take stock of the progress they have made after six months of immense change. The size of the state is reducing, budgets are slashed and people are leaving public service. We’ve seen a number of senior PR staff leave their roles and the COI will close in March.

There are mixed signals as to whether public service PR is meeting the challenges that these changes should herald. Overall, it appears that local government communications is getting it right. Initiatives such as ‘Summer in the City’ may be one reason why a new poll by Populus this week shows that public understanding of what local authorities are doing to manage reduced budgets is increasing.

It shows a rebound in informed ratings about council activity and it reports that 70% of respondents see coverage of their local authority as positive or neutral compared to only 40% for central government. Overall this new poll reinforces the message that when councils are seen to be responding to public concerns about the tough economic conditions people approve of what the council is doing.

Local government’s poll numbers have been improving since the start of the year but in many cases are still lower than the ratings of last year. And there is little evidence that as a whole council communications is reshaping itself to deliver better communications with smaller budgets.

The examples of innovation in response to austerity are well known because they appear to be limited. Blackburn’s joint council and health communications. Manchester’s eight borough communications group. The management of Brentwood District Council’s communications by Essex County Council. There are other authorities around the country that are doing good work to share resources, align campaigns and deliver better public relations. Derbyshire, Coventry, Bromsgrove and Cambridgeshire among them. These are the leaders in this area, but there are too few of them.
This matters because the common complaint from council PR people at the moment is that they do not have the resources to do the job. But many communication teams are not taking the opportunity to go back to first principles, consider for what impact we spend money on public relations, define goals and then build a structure, probably best shared with other public bodies, to deliver the desired outcomes in terms of public understanding or behaviour change. Some prefer to sit and moan about their reduced role rather than radically change, and win the respect of their organisations for doing so, thereby strengthening the role of communications.

This is a generational opportunity to redefine how we deliver public service PR. The ‘Summer in the City’ initiative was partly inspired by the Department of Health’s Change 4 Life campaign, which has an obvious and strong link with local government. Government communicators should be acting now to combine services. But there are too many people who remain determined to defend their turf. The proposed national NHS ‘hub and spoke’ model appears designed to create a new silo, distinct from local government at a time when they should be reaching out to colleagues to see how campaigns can be discharged locally.

It’s highly unlikely that the public spending cash limits will change significantly for the next five years. Unless we can learn to be more ambitious and braver about sharing functions, public service PR will be condemned to decline through a series of financial squeezes and a perception that it cannot meet new challenges.

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

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