Debates about trust and confidence in institutions continue on a regular basis. If the media are to be believed people have lost faith in public services. But is this an accurate representation? It doesn’t appear to be borne out in survey results. If you take policing as an example the surveys don’t support the media headlines about a collapse in trust; the majority polled still have confidence in police officers according to a Sky News poll.
Maintaining public confidence during an increasingly challenging financial situation is not going to be easy for public services. Recent announcements have suggested funding will be reduced in the coming years and this means services stretched or reduced. The impact will only really be felt when people call for assistance and find the services are not there.
Communication in all its forms will be vital in the lean years ahead. Whether it is by providing access to big data or finding other ways to release more information to people, communication will have to change. Frontline staff are going to be critical in maintaining confidence as services shrink. They are at the sharp end representing the organisation and what it stands for. Internal comms must now be prioritised. Staff need to be given the tools, training and support to manage communication, but they first have to understand why and be willing to do it. We can put the tools of modern communication into the hands of frontline staff. We must do it and do it now.
Public sector agencies are also going to have to work closer together. It is more than having a passing reference to ‘partnership working’ in a press release; it has to mean fundamentally changing how services are provided. For in-house communicators this creates challenges of focusing on the consumer rather than on protecting an organisation’s reputation.
We need to move into a new era, where we are sharing between agencies and working in a more open way. It is a time when what matters to the consumer will override internal politics and egos. It is also a time when people need to take some control of their own communities. We are seeing some of this happen, with some local authority services now provided by community groups and charities. Within Greater Manchester Police we have been using community reporters who spend time with officers and write about their experiences.
The conversation with people will have to change. But at a time of increased scrutiny of decision-making by agencies, both by inspection regimes and by the media, this is going to be a leap of faith. No public sector chief executive will want to take this step into the brave new world and find they are pilloried in the newspapers when something goes wrong.
In almost five years of shrinking budgets, confidence has been maintained in much of the public sector. It now needs all public sector communicators to be strong and resilient, to take up the challenge and keep local people at the centre of the changes. Now we can shape the future for the better.
Amanda Coleman is corporate comms director at Greater Manchester Police