During the unexpected European election count in May, I took on a job I’ve not done before; adjudicating spoiled ballot papers. The British voter has many creative ways of spoiling a paper, and the most popular, as I was warned, is to draw male genitalia on it, with varying degrees of skill and ambition. And so it proved to be, with some punters taking full advantage of the two-foot long ballot paper, and even bringing coloured pens into the polling station for the task.
As we move into the autumn, local government is cranking up the elections machine again, in preparation for a potential general election. The nation is in a disgruntled state, potentially on the brink of crisis, and I am preparing myself for further artistic commentary from my fellow citizens.
Election preparation is a huge job in itself, and a major communications task, but it’s one we’ve done many times before. We know what to expect, and what is expected of us. The potential impact of Brexit is far less clear, but one thing we do know is that local government will be on the front line of whatever happens. Council PRs up and down the country – in the major Port Authorities, those steeling themselves for the impact on health and social care, on agriculture, on traffic congestion, on our citizens – are preparing for what could turn out to be the biggest comms challenge we’ve ever faced.
Under the Civil Contingencies Act, local government is a ‘Category 1’ responder in any kind of emergency situation. Our job is to oversee ‘return to normality’. As communicators, our professional skills will be in huge demand as we deal with the as-yet-unknown consequences of 31 October. Even if the predicted meltdown doesn’t happen, if we leave the EU in a dignified and orderly fashion, the scars of the past three divisive years will be on our communities for years to come – and it is also our job in local government to bring people together, to foster strong, cohesive communities, to tackle hate crime and intolerance, and to provide ways for people to have a say over the issues that affect their lives.
In a post-Brexit world, whatever that looks like, it’s vital that, as a profession, we learn the lessons of what we have been through, and use our skills to engage and to listen, as much as we do to influence. We need to better understand the emo-tional, as well as practical, impact of change on communities, and to ensure that people have a real stake in the places they live in and the services they use. We need to learn to value diversity more, including a genuine diversity of perspective.
In local government, we are better placed than anyone else to tackle this challenge. Doing it well isn’t easy, especially with such drastically reduced resources, but good engagement is more important than ever before. Especially if we want people to feel less inclined to ‘decorate’ their ballot papers, and to fully participate in a healthy democracy, where everyone can make their voice heard.
Polly Cziok is director of communications, culture, and engagement at the London Borough of Hackney