Local Government: All eyes on the public

Councils have woken up to the correlation between good comms and public satisfaction, finds Alex Blythe.

'Local government is improving its performance all the time but this is not being reflected by rising levels of public satisfaction,' according to Local Government Association chairman Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. But maybe this is a communications issue; recent research by MORI which found that council comms and local press coverage actually have a greater effect on satisfaction levels than factors such as tax.

Local government is beginning to wake up to the need for effective comms and the LGA has called on councils to avoid damage to credibility by taking action to improve their comms functions.

This public satisfaction will matter even more to councils if the Audit Commission implements its recently announced proposals to assess the extent to which they deliver value for money. However, Bruce-Lockhart, says a good reputation is already vital for staff morale and recruitment.

He argues that local government managers need to be given more incentive to focus on public satisfaction: 'The success of any commercial organisation rests heavily on how satisfied its customers are with its services. The same is true of local government and we need to spend less time worrying about how Whitehall views us and instead start considering how the public at large view us.'

Barriers to communication

There are two main reasons why local authorities are not communicating as well as they might. The first is that budgets are often extremely tight.

Lynx PR managing director Martin Howell says: 'I've worked on campaigns where the council hasn't been able to afford press cuttings.

So, for the sake of a few tens of pounds we've had little or no idea how successful the campaign has been.'

The second is that most councils are too busy fire-fighting to develop positive messages and plan strategies for getting them out. Andrew Baud, managing director of marketing and communications consultancy BANC, says: 'Too many local government comms teams slip into a press office role.

'For instance, we ran a workshop on the freedom of information issue and found very few had developed any sort of plan for dealing with the queues of journalists that were very likely to be demanding information previously deemed too sensitive to release.'

Even local authority communications departments that are well funded, and run by professionals who understand the need to convey strategic messages, often fail to get their messages across because they are unwilling or unable to use innovative comms tactics.

Those who have worked closely with such departments complain they are too narrowly focused on media relations and fail to think more carefully about how to reach their target audiences.

An obvious example is that very few young people read local newspapers, so if councils want to communicate with them, their comms departments need to be more creative.

But not all local authorities are communicating badly. Some are cash rich and use their budgets wisely. Slough Borough Council head of corporate communications David Holdstock says his team has devised a newsletter, produced on audio cassette in English and three other languages prevalent in the community.

And a MORI satisfaction survey of residents in 13 Greater Manchester boroughs last year ranked Stockport Council highly in terms of keeping people informed; it came joint first in the overall satisfaction rankings.

Controlling perceptions

Stockport head of marketing and communications Ian Ratcliffe says the council will not be resting on its laurels: 'We've just launched a communications strategy, through which all managers will be required to demonstrate competency in communications skills.

'It will increase the integration and co-ordination of our channels of communication, such as bus ads, beer mats and brochures. It ought to strengthen council branding and improve access to information,' he adds.

Measuring the impact of good PR on public satisfaction with local authorities is challenging for several reasons. First, it is usually more urgent to address shortcomings than to measure the extent of failure. And, even in areas where a council is focusing on its communications, public satisfaction is hard to define and highly volatile. It is also difficult to separate the effect of good comms from other factors.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Improvement and Development Agency, the LGA and the Audit Commission have joined forces for an initiative to help local authorities communicate with the public more effectively.

The scheme offers access to professional advice, best practice case studies, discussion forums and a leaders' development programme - a good starting point for any local government manager looking to make improvements in this area.

But local authorities need to bear in mind that while good communications is important, it is no substitute for excellent service delivery in the first place.

As Bruce-Lockhart concludes: 'We need to improve the quality of individual customer service and make clearly visible improvements to the street scene, only then does PR have a vital role to play.

'There is no doubt that the 400 or so local authorities across the country can do a great deal to improve their corporate comms.'

There is some evidence that local government is beginning to wake up to the need for effective comms.

It is beginning to realise that far from being an expensive luxury, and a recognition that it can be one of the best ways to ensure that council tax payers feel they are getting value for money.

A recent LGA report calls on local authorities to recognise the situation and take action - 'to formally agree not only that the problem of poor perception exists, and damages credibility, but that collective and focused action is vital', it says.

CALDERDALE COUNCIL

Calderdale Council learnt the value of PR in 2000 when it was the subject of criticism in the press.

Local papers such as the Halifax Courier and Yorkshire Post had run the story that local school Ridings had failed an OFSTED inspection and that staff were subsequently threatening to walk out unless conditions improved.

The story was picked up by the nationals and Labour and Conservative MPs all distanced themselves from the council as it endured weeks of condemnation in the media.As a result, the council brought in Lynx PR to try to turn its image around.

Managing director Martin Howell recalls: 'It was obvious to us why the council was getting slaughtered by the media.

'There was no comms department and the councillors and managers didn't stand a chance against a media that had little understanding of the issues and were being allowed to choose the time, location and subject matter of every interview.

'We started by getting the media to look at the facts, and then we just did the simple things like holding interviews in the right places and right times so our spokespeople had a fair chance to convey their message.'

This quickly improved the situation. Local media began to adopt a more constructive tone on the subject, and the negative aspect of the story eventually disappeared from the nationals, with a few national papers running positive stories about the school.

Unfortunately there was no measurement of results.

Howell explains: 'There wasn't even a (comms) department so it would have been a huge leap for the council to immediately start commissioning satisfaction surveys.'

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