John Shewell: Getting the budget right

Local government is about to enter another round of budget setting for the new financial year and some authorities will be planning for the next three financial years.

John Shewell:Local government must change its approach to budget consultation
John Shewell:Local government must change its approach to budget consultation
This will be a very challenging time for local public service comms teams to engage and inform staff and citizens about reducing public sector spending.

The Office for Budget Responsibility recently announced that the government needs to make deeper cuts or raise more money to balance the books.

This news comes on top of the introduction of the welfare reform in 2013, which the government is proposing that councils administer the system at the local level while reducing the overall budget for housing and council tax benefits. The cost of implementing a system to administer the welfare reform will be very costly for local councils.

And there are further reductions proposed for community grants, which is funding for the community and voluntary sector. In all it's going to be a tough sell.

Local government needs to fundamentally change the way it approaches the whole 'budget consultation'.

Comms teams must consider how to effectively engage with citizens by approaching it from a thematic perspective. All too often comms teams focus on the actual budget as opposed to services that really matter most to residents.

We need to speak the language of the public - by focussing on the issues and services that matter most, councils will be able to extract meaningful engagement in the overall budget. This means talking about schools, libraries, parks, transport, waste collection and community safety - some of the topline issues residents care about.

The engagement also needs to improve. All too often councils ask how people would prioritise services and use simulation exercises in an attempt to demonstrate the difficulty of setting a council budget. This is futile as it only serves to over-simplify the process rendering it meaningless and encourages participants to literally play with a budget.

The engagement also needs greater "literacy" in the budget setting process. Local government finance is a complex beast therefore comms teams need to explain how the council gets and spends its money and some of the constraints.

These conversations need to span a longer timeframe - this should be built into overall campaigns in thematic areas which run for over six months with continual feedback.

This requires more work but it's vital if local government wants to maintain the trust and support of the public. In short, this is about demonstrating the importance and relevance of the sector.

Comms teams also need to manage both staff and public expectations. We need to stop talking about maintaining quality services in the face of cuts. This is an unsustainable position. The fact is if there are continual cuts to a service then quality may be one of the areas that will be impacted.

Comms teams face a tough challenge and it’s time to rethink how to explain the budget setting process and review the way we engage people because if we fail to get across to the public the importance and relevance of local public services then the reputation of the sector will suffer.

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

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