New act offers a direct route to the top table

An important act of parliament, with huge implications for communication teams became law this month. The grandly titled "Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act" might even count as a new bill of rights for councils and the citizens they serve.

Aiken: golden opportunity
Aiken: golden opportunity

It places a new duty on local councils to promote democracy - putting local authorities at the forefront of the drive to reconnect people with public and political decision-making. It’s intended that the legislation will ensure everyone understands how the council works, who makes decisions on their behalf and how individuals can get involved in the work of local government.

This offers substantial opportunities for PR teams to extend their work into the community. It reinforces the trend of a move away from the traditonal work of press releases, events and rebuttal towards PR as an an active conversation with communities, using the latest techniques to explan why decisions are taken. It should move press officers from being engaged primarily in a dialogue with local hacks to directly contributing to local community news sites, facebook groups and twitter feeds on specific issues, explaining processes and gathering feedback. Some are already doing this, but it is the exception rather than the norm.

Implementing the legislation involved a series of consultation events, due to start next month on how guidance to councils could be framed to turn statute into best practice. The department for Communities and Local Government had combined this with the ongoing consultation on revisions to the code of conduct on local government publicity and invited local government communications staff to contibute to the events. Last week these were cancelled, because, in an excuse straight from ‘Yes Minister’ delay in parliament appears to be causing a corresponding delay in the consultation process. If we want a revised code, and statutory guidance heads of communication need to lobby the department to reschedule these events.

But the act remains and local authority PR teams should use the spirit and provisions of the legislation to change their 2010 communications plans to secure greater involvement of people in the decision-making processes of local public authorities. This is a golden opportunity to use a new law to make councils more open and transparent and in turn improve the perception that people can get involved in the work of a council, a critical component of overall satisfaction.
We should be using the provisions of the Act to convene citizen’s panels on specific issues, encourage community activists to set up online communities to scrutinise new proposals and run seminars in the community on how your local council works – eschewing the usual PowerPoint formats for interactive discussions in youth clubs and senior citizen lunch clubs. PR officers should be leading this work, and using the responses gathered to influence the direction of policy and service delivery.

It’s not often that PR officers are offered a direct route to the corporate top table. Leading the drive to explain and embed democracy is a legal route to that goal.  

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