John Shewell: Is the public sector relevant?

A worsening financial crisis, growing distrust of politicians, concern over a scarcity of natural resources and the rapidly evolving nature of technology are just some factors reshaping society at all levels.

John Shewell: Communities must be reassured
John Shewell: Communities must be reassured

Some CEOs of local councils I spoke to recently all shared similar concerns and frustrations over the incredibly difficult challenges they face, including a growing disconnect with some of their communities.

All this chimes with the global Prosumer Report published earlier this year by Havas, which shows a growing trend of people who have little faith in political leaders, and believe government organisations are barriers to, rather than enablers of, positive change.

Willie Nelson’s cover of Coldplay's 'Back to the Start' is a good moment to pause for reflection and remind ourselves of the purpose of public services - uphold the principles of democracy and promote civil society.

And at a time when the news agenda is largely dominated with whether the UK can avoid a 'triple-dip' recession and more cuts to the public sector, local public services must work harder to connect with their communities.

This is as much about reassuring people as it is about working together for a better future. It's about why public services exist to improve lives and place. This isn't about local leadership; it’s about collective responsibility.

Comms and policy teams also need to adopt a more holistic approach to policy and service design. This requires a thorough understanding of our communities and the multiple factors, including policies, that have influenced behaviour.

One of our clients, Lewes District Council, is about to launch a new food waste collection service and the council is involving residents in the design of the behaviour change campaign.

The Democratic Society (Demsoc) has been tasked with identifying the relevant networks in the community to involve them in open policy discussions.

The first iteration involves community experts to develop a set of policy principles; the second involves a network of influencers to determine how the policy could be refined and communicated to achieve the desired outcome; and finally the broader public to engage with the initiative. Throughout the process there is a feedback loop to constantly improve the initiative.

This methodology refines the policy through a process of iteration with citizens, and helps shape the comms ahead of the launch.

It is time-consuming, but by integrating democratic participation into the policy-comms design cycle makes it part of the business.

The narrative must focus on why public services are relevant, but this needs to be achieved in an open and participative process with citizens as equals.

John Shewell is the founding director of coLab. Prior to coLab, John was head of comms at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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