Public Sector: Local government needs new ideas

A local authority responding to what people actually want? Surely not. In Essex, our plan to keep open a number of post offices is doing just that. The level of interest and media coverage in what we are doing illustrates a number of points.

Firstly, and obviously, just how controversial the issue of post office closures is. Secondly, how centralised and top-down our governance is. And thirdly, just how surprised some seem to be when local government comes up with a half decent idea, albeit one that to anyone on the street appears just plain sensible.

And why the surprise? With a £2bn annual budget, representing the 67th largest economy in the world and a population of 1.6 million, shouldn't this be what an organisation such as Essex County Council is doing anyway?

Yet when one considers the isolationist mind-set in which local government has historically operated and its negative external perceptions, perhaps such surprise is more understandable.

Our vision in Essex is to provide the best quality of life for our residents. Part of this approach has been a very deliberate comms strategy of identifying issues and concerns of residents - such as post offices - and proactively campaigning around them.

This external focus is, I believe, the next step in the place-shaping agenda. Outward-facing and representative of our communities, not just our organisations. And why? In the most centralised nation in Europe, Whitehall and Westminster still hold the key, most notably to the purse strings, while of course the influence of the London-based media is clear. Targeting these groups is vital to improving the quality of life in our neighbourhoods.

To achieve this we need a different mind-set to that of some local government leaders and comms professionals. The LGA can only do so much in representing the sector. It must be for individual authorities to represent the concerns of their own communities. Whether that is over post offices or any other issue important to quality of life, the challenge for local authority comms teams to get out and represent their communities is clear.

Perhaps then there will be a little less surprise at what the sector is capable of.

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