For local authorities, this is the season of the council tax bill. Not a good time to start to make the case for taking £1,000 away from a typical household, but that is the challenge facing every council communicator.
Over the next two months, the level of tax will be debated nationally, and services scrutinised locally. It is a critical battleground as perceived value for money is a major component of the council brand. For many people their council tax bill might be the only communication they receive from their authority throughout the year.
Communications teams must use the next few weeks to demonstrate value at every opportunity. This doesn’t mean producing a huge document to list local Gershon efficiency gains. It means checking every press release and every article in the council magazine to ensure it emphasises the value of local services, and highlights who benefits.
It also means talking the language of households, not accountants. Too often government expresses investment in terms of millions. These sums are inconceivable to most. So spending needs to be described as ‘amount per household’.
Engage your staff and the local population in the debate. Some authorities have run campaigns to challenge staff to deliver efficiency gains. Other councils have initiated exercises asking local people to say how they would determine priorities. These activities increase understanding of the real choices that have to be made in public service. These approaches must be reflected in your council tax precept leaflet. Too often these are written by accountants for auditors. Instead we must make them accessible to taxpayers by demonstrating the huge range of services that local government provides. One way is to combine an A-Z of services with the council tax report to explain what local government provides to the community.
Part of the burden we face is that as winter turns into spring, council tax bills will land on doorsteps. So these next few weeks are critical to win the argument and show people that local government provides great value services.
Alex Aitken is head of communications at Westminster City Council