OPINION: Are we to blame for council woes?

The new Commission on Local Government Communications certainly has its work cut out.

Page:managing director, Ipsos Mori
Page:managing director, Ipsos Mori

Over the past three years, ratings of many local services have improved, and far outstrip ratings of local councils themselves. Ratings of street cleaning are up nine percentage points. But communications teams in local government are simply not delivering.

If the 2006 Best Value Performance Indicator (BVPI) results are to be believed, the proportion of people who think their council keeps them infor-med about services has fallen by eight per cent.

This may explain why, despite splendid comprehensive performance assessment scores, improving services and falling concern about antisocial behaviour, overall ratings of councils fell slightly and remain well below the 2001 level.

I know there are issues about like-for-like measurement with the BVPI surveys, but results cannot be taken to suggest things are improving – and it is hardly a compelling story to give any leader when you are asking for more investment in communications.

Why aren’t we making progress? You might argue that we are starved of resources: Ipsos Mori analysis shows only a weak relationship between investment and communications effectiveness.

Instead, perhaps we need to look at comms teams’ own effectiveness. Could it be that we have built in structural weaknesses because of the profile of our staff, and the fact that we find it difficult to retain skills in the sector?

In my work on the Connecting with Communities project at the beginning of this century, a common problem for authorities was, to quote one head of communications: ‘There aren’t enough good PR people willing or able to work in local government or the public sector – you must therefore to a large extent grow your own.’ And as another put it: ‘Staff in the communications function were recruited young because they were cheap and would do the job.’

Earlier this year a study of communications staff in local government found that 30 per cent had not heard of the Local Government White Paper and that a large minority thought branding had nothing to do with them. We have tool kits and best practice galore. But we do need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

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