Alex Aiken: resisting the winter blues

Since the snow in January, the reputation of local public services has been improving.

Alex Aiken: 'The propensity of local government to shoot itself in the foot needs to be reduced'
Alex Aiken: 'The propensity of local government to shoot itself in the foot needs to be reduced'

Successive polls have shown that peoples think more highly of their local government and even government minister's have stopped the bombardment of invective towards allegedly wasteful, incompetent authorities.

Local reputation hit a low point last winter when some councils where seen as failing to deal with the impact of freezing weather. There were in fact many heroes, from the Sutton officers who organised grit deliveries to local households to the Coventry City tweeters who kept up a steady flow of public information.

But the overall public perception was negative, reinforced by censorious letters from the office of Bob Neill, local government minister, to every council leader.  

Since then local reputation has recovered. Authorities are generally seen as listening and perhaps the public has not seen the reduction in services that the coverage of the budget cuts threatened.

They appear to be more appreciative of local services doing their best at a time of austerity. This might be about to change, with inevitably negative consequences for councils, police authorities and local hospitals.

Winter seems to be the point at which public service is always tested to its limits and public relations practitioners should be on their guard for four threats to local reputation.

First, the perception of reducing value for money. As many people have less cash, the consequence of static wages and rising food and fuel prices increase, they will look hard at their council tax bills and wonder whether they are getting value for money.

The average bill of £1,439 represents the cost of family holiday. It's one of the biggest household purchases. Demonstrating what this pays for - care services for pensioners, schooling for children and clean streets should be the central goal of every local government PR from now until when council tax is set next March.

Second, the sanity check. The propensity of local government to shoot itself in the foot needs to be reduced if we are to navigate the reputational rapids over the autumn and winter. Mistakes are legendary, from York building a fence through a football pitch to Portsmouth’s pensioner sex education classes to the case of the council which apparently fined a dog owner for brushing his pet.

It is the job of every lead communications officer to tell their board to sense check every decision; test every policy and act as the conscience of the organisation, on behalf of the audiences we serve.

Third, is the Pothole test of whether we are seen to be acting on issues that really concern residents. There will always be one iconic issue that exemplifies the Daily Mail's ire against local authorities. In previous years it has been salaries, levels of tax and rubbish collection. This year potholes may be the test.

The latest LGInsight polling highlights that people are increasingly conscious about the standard of maintenance of their streets. Half of Britons are already dissatisfied with the standard of road maintenance in this country whereas only one in ten are dissatisfied with their bin collection.

They focus on roads possibly because a deep pothole can send their car to the garage with a £500 bill and the end of their no claims bonus. It's a sign of the effectiveness of local authorities. Last spring potholes were aplenty in the areas I drive around in south London.

It's a credit to Lambeth and Wandsworth councils that they had been repaired during the summer. So it should be the communicators duty to explain how the traffic has been kept moving, roads repaired and highlight the costs of doing so to reassure anxious motorists that the local council is doing all that it can to make the roads safer.

Fourth, the energy test; the need to connect with our audiences through demonstrable leadership. Some local authorities do this all the time, fighting for additional resources; protecting vulnerable groups.

This winter the challenges will be jobs, affordable heating and opportunities for young people. In all these areas and despite the spending reductions, local government has a huge number of initiatives to communicate.

Previously unsexy issues such as home insulation, electric blanket tests and grants for conversion to greener energy sources deserve a higher profile if the council is to show how it is looking after local people given the likelihood of a severe winter and stretched household incomes. 

In summary, we should think strategically but illustrate with tangible examples what localism can mean in practice. And we should sit down with colleagues in Police and Health and Fire to think how we can help each other more the coming months.

Public service stands or falls together. Joining up the services can deliver improved communities and great PR as the best authorities that work together show. There will be a natural tendency for people to move apart in response to budget cuts. This should be resisted. We'll succeed or fall together.


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

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