The TaxPayers’ Alliance – accomplished headline grabbers with regular rants about public sector profligacy – claimed that councils were spending £450m a year on publicity, a figure that had doubled in ten years.
After discussing our approach with colleagues in councils around the country, we went on the offensive and relished the opportunity to make a key point about local government.
To enhance our sector’s reputation, we seek to change the perception people have about where their council tax goes. It is not just on emptying the bins, but rather providing a raft of different services – on average 800 per council – that impact on everyone’s lives.
I have evidence that shows that once people start understanding this point, they begin to realise that local authorities provide value for money, whatever their level of council tax. They even start quite liking their council and think it makes where they live better.
This is the thinking behind the Local Government Association’s reputation campaign – backed by 260 councils – and how we approached rebutting our friends at the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
What services precisely did the organisation not want councils to tell their residents about, we asked. Making sure women catch a properly licensed cab home? How to report fly-tipping?
When elderly residents receive meals on wheels? Warning parents about dangerous toys? How to claim some of the millions of pounds of unclaimed tax benefits? Alerts about flooding?
The alliance’s stunt had also singled out Birmingham City Council for spending £10m on publicity. Was the alliance aware, we asked again, that this represents 0.003 per cent of the council’s budget and that it was responsible for 174,158 pupils in 426 schools, 2,675 hectares of park, 3,500,000 hours of home care provision, 167,000 waste collections and 2,475 km of roads?
The list goes on and on – not only for Birmingham but all of local government. So as public sector PR people we need to stand up, be counted and fight back.
Richard Stokoe is head of news at the Local Government Association