John Shewell: Focus Beyond Reputation

Local public services are changing fundamentally in a way which could transform their delivery to citizens.

John Shewell: Public services must empower citizens
John Shewell: Public services must empower citizens

There are many pressures driving this – not least finances, but it presents a clear opportunity to innovate. To do it successfully communications needs to be at the heart of this process.

 The challenge is to connect with citizens by engaging and involving them in the design and delivery of key public services.

This opportunity could be a game changer for local public service communications. It’s about creating and nurturing the democratic conversation – not once every four years but every single day both within the organisation and across communities.

Hansard recently released its report 'Audit of Political Engagement 9' which showed that 56per cent of people surveyed agree that their involvement in their local community could bring about change; only 32per cent say the same about involvement in national politics.

Cross reference this the Citizenship Survey in 2010 which showed that community cohesion – measured as a sense of belonging to our neighborhoods – has strengthened over the past decade. In short, local democracy really matters and how local public services are communicated can make all the difference.

 We need to connect the three inter-related parts of citizen, public services and innovation. To do this, we need to create the space for the democratic conversation to take place and this means opening up and inviting in our stakeholders and citizens.

 At a recent PEP-NET conference in Hamburg there were several striking and inspiring examples of citizen-led participation in action where local communities where involved in innovating public services.

The likes of UK thought-leaders in this field also attended such as Anthony Zacharzewski of the Democratic Society and Nick Booth of Podnosh who demonstrated how civic action can take place.

One of the standout examples was 'NextHamburg' which is a project about shaping the future of the city and this was done by involving citizens to design and even deliver public services - a project backed by the public service but allowing citizens to effectively 'get on with it'. The local public service acted as both faciliator and enabler.

Citizen-led participation is happening across Europe and growing strongly in the UK. Local public service communications should tap into this potential to better engage with citizens and innovate services. Our mission should be to connect with the place we serve and our collective purpose must be to transform lives to improve communities.

This is about developing and harnessing the human and social capital of the place, developing our traditional and modern infrastructure and exploring opportunities that can grow the local economy in a sustainable fashion that promotes prosperity.

We also need to better understand the capacity, motivation and opportunity to support people to engage and act, which is more important and powerful than simply calling for action.

Communications needs to reorient its focus beyond reputation – to connect with citizens. It needs to shift from broadcasters to facilitators and enablers – encouraging the organisations they serve to become more socially engaged and connect with their communities.

By taking these steps we move beyond reputation to an authentic and democratic organisation that lives by its values – public service. We need to return to the fundamental principle that citizens are at the heart of our mission and their involvement is to not only inform but form the public services which serve their community.

John Shewell is head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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