In response, senior communicators need to raise their game.
What’s more, the recent Comprehensive Performance Assessment results showed that the gap between the best and worst performing authorities is widening. And this is reflected in local government communications.
The best authorities are too few and easy to name – Stockport, Derbyshire, Blackburn and Liverpool. These are the teams with strategic vision, a clear remit and focused activity. Many other councils do good work, but not enough lead the way in strategic comms terms. The sector at times seems obsessed with structure over objectives, and wanting to learn from case studies, rather than consider how to contribute holistically to the goals of the authority in terms of reputation and place-shaping.
Local government appears to have learnt how to implement comms – producing better magazines and staff information – but we are failing to grasp why communication matters.
Clarity over strategy would help reduce the unhealthy growth in decentralised comms. The strength of departmental communications is an indication that corporate communicators are not trusted. The sector needs to be clear that only unified corporate teams can offer the direction, focus and development that will improve the quality of council PR.
Dispersed communications diminishes the aggregate authority of local government, restricts best practice and limits career opportunities. It’s a recipe for stagnation.
We must also recruit from outside local government. Dreary adverts demanding ‘local government experience’ diminish the expertise available to the sector. Chief executives want great communicators, not time servers. Birmingham City Council’s hire of Debra Davis as director of comms and PA is a step forward.
Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council