ANALYSIS: Comms is key to boost public trust in councils

It is now a year since the Government invested heavily in improving council PR, but fresh research shows public trust in those who provide our services is as low as ever. Mark Johnson reports.

Almost a year on from the launch of the Improvement and Development Agency's (IDeA) toolkit and training resource to help councils improve communications, a survey by the Audit Commission last week highlighted falling levels of trust for the organisations that provide our public services.

A telling insight is that it is organisations, rather than the people who provide the services, that we do not trust. Most galling of all for local council PROs is that in the report, entitled Trust in Public Bodies, the commission highlights councils as enjoying less trust than any other public bodies.

Forty per cent of respondents rated the quality of local services provided by councils as good, compared to 30 per cent who gave them a thumbs down.

But an astonishing 48 per cent said they do not trust their local council, either very much or at all.

Compare this result with NHS hospitals, which earned the highest trust rating at 79 per cent, and 74 per cent who trust their local police force, and it becomes clear that local authorities continue to face a reputational challenge.

Audit Commission media manager Miranda James says the report highlights many 'complex issues', adding 'but I don't think it's as simple as saying councils are not communicating with local people'.

The issue of improving the way local authorities communicate is a long-standing one that led to the launch last year of IDeA's Connecting with Communities toolkit and resource services.

The results of this survey paint a picture of little or no improvement.

The questions is: has the initiative helped? IDeA principal consultant (communications) Pascoe Sawyers says: 'All the main findings (of the Audit Commission survey) show a clear correlation between levels of satisfaction and the quality of information local authorities provide.'

He argues that communication is key to solving the trust issue, but calls for a change in the way councils have traditionally managed comms, with less of a focus on the media.

'This is an issue about the broadening scope of council communications and focusing on community engagement. I'm hoping to draw in more consultation and customer services,' Sawyers adds.

The second phase in IDeA's initiative to improve council comms will launch in November with the Local Government Communications Leadership Programme.

Sawyers says its aim will be to equip PR executives with the skills required to become senior managers, in the hope they will be offered more strategic involvement in council management.

'If people don't trust councils, that indicates they're not getting the message across. That says to me that comms has not been considered in the process,' he says.

The glaring anomaly between the public saying they are satisfied with council service provision and yet saying they do not trust the council is something which can be solved by better communications, agrees Canterbury City Council head of strategic planning Robin Cooper: 'Councils are not very good at telling people what they do and how the public can get involved. There's also the challenge of explaining the services that are provided. With the police it's easy, but with councils, the public wonder what each council does.'

Certainly the report highlights a correlation between media coverage of public services and perception. The two major factors that affect whether or not a public body is trusted are: the quality of service people receive and whether they think the organisations are honest and competent. Although only 16 per cent of respondents claimed that what is said about services in the media affects how much they trust public services, high-profile scandals have definitely damaged trust levels.

When asked if high-profile mistakes like the death of Victoria Climbie and the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence had raised questions about the quality and reliability of services, two in three respondents said it did.

Local Government Association director of strategy and comms Phil Swan suggests that while 'spinning' around stories surrounding mistakes or poor management is to be avoided, there are issues to be addressed in the way the media handles a range of local authority stories.

Trust is most often lost, says the report, when the public believes public institutions have poor quality leaders and managers and when they are not interested in people's views.

'Informal accounts of local councils between family and friends are negative', continues the report.

Sawyers suggests this is one argument for improved internal comms aimed at 'turning assassins into ambassadors': 'In a situation where 30 per cent of local people work for the council you've got a captive audience.'

The report makes uncomfortable reading for local authorities, but the remedy to many problems remains essentially one of communications.

THE KEY FINDINGS

- 48 per cent of those surveyed by the Audit Commission said they do not trust their local council, either very much or at all

- NHS hospitals earned the highest trust rating at 79 per cent

- 74 per cent of respondents trust their local police force

- Only 16 per cent of respondents claimed that what is said about services in the media affects how much they trust public services

- A perception of poor quality leaders and lack of interest in people's views is one of the main reasons why the public lose trust in councils.

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