FOCUS: LOCAL GOVERNMENT - Giving the best value to residents/The Government has chosen 37 councils to take part in a pilot scheme to improve service through resident dialogue but even those not taking part have realised the value of improved communication

According to MORI research, less than three per cent of the British public can name a councillor across any local government authority, and only 12 per cent ever meet one. Councils appear to have lost touch with their audiences, and residents are left wondering what difference their votes will make.

According to MORI research, less than three per cent of the British

public can name a councillor across any local government authority, and

only 12 per cent ever meet one. Councils appear to have lost touch with

their audiences, and residents are left wondering what difference their

votes will make.

In December 1997, the Government nominated 37 local authorities to take

part in a three-year ’Best Value’ pilot initiative aimed at improving

economy, efficiency, effectiveness and quality in local services through

proper and effective dialogue with residents.

A promising start, says MORI local government director Ben Page, but

warns: ’Best Value is one thing but achieving democratic renewal is

another beast altogether - councils need to be clear about exactly what

they are hoping to achieve.’

As the more enlightened authorities already realise, discovering

residents’ priorities requires a different kind of PR initiative to

getting people involved in council decision-making, or to encouraging

election turnout.

There is, however, one common denominator - residents must believe that

what they tell the council will actually make a difference to the

services they receive, otherwise they will lose interest and dialogue

will be lost.

Best Value pilot Newham Council has a variety of initiatives to monitor

its own performance and the public’s perception. To boost its image and

aid communication, it has opened a new hi-tech service centre offering

an efficient one-stop-shop, which allows residents to deal with a range

of council-related services through a single staff member. The centre

also has a computerised system allowing residents to give feedback on

council services.

Newham also holds ’Listening Days’ which involve 60 of the council’s

most senior managers visiting shopping areas and homes to ask residents

what they think of the authority and to tell them how their views are

altering council policy. Results are compiled into a booklet and

distributed to residents, and the council is aware of the need for

follow-up PR.

’When a manager is drawing up an action plan, he has to make

improvements according to the consultation findings, which means

addressing not only the service in question but the public’s perception

of it,’ says Newham communications manager, Ian Marratt.

Face-to-face contact is effective in giving the council a human element,

but it runs the risk of attracting views from the more activist members

of the community at the expense of those who are more hesitant. To

ensure a representative spread, Newham also uses more traditional market

research methods such as surveys and focus groups.

By using a mixture of devices to communicate with and involve its

residents, Newham has achieved impressive results. The council’s

position in London has risen from 31st in 1995/96 to fourth in 1997/98

based on a basket of 46 performance indicators, and it has responded

well to residents’ wishes. In one initiative, it has responded to a fear

of crime by installing CCTV cameras in two main shopping areas.

One of the most popular forms of consultation is a citizen’s panel, by

which a dedicated group of 1,000 or more residents are approached for

their views through self-completion questionnaires.

Wiltshire Council (which is not involved in the Best Value pilot)

launched the ’People’s Voice’ in June, which is one of the largest

panels in the country involving 4,000 members who agree to complete

structured questionnaires on a range of issues up to five times a year.

The initiative is still in its infancy but, as a way of demonstrating

that the panel will make a difference to council decision-making, the

authority has pledged a pounds 1 million budget to spend in direct

response to the survey results.

Citizens’ panels are an effective way of getting a representative sample

of residents’ views, and from a PR point of view they demonstrate a

willingness to listen, but they do not necessarily make people feel


The Citizens’ Jury, an initiative which has been set up in many

authorities following a Government White Paper ’Modern Local Government,

In Touch With The People’, goes some way to achieving this. It takes the

form of a two-day meeting in which a representative sample of residents

are given comprehensive documentation on a particular issue and are

asked to come up with suggestions for future action, which the council

is obliged to consider.

Waltham Forest Council, a non-pilot authority, has set up a Citizens’

Jury scheme in anticipation of Best Value legislation. Head of

communications Jide Odusina is aware of the initiative’s limitations:

’It is important to show people how they can get involved, but the real

challenge for PR is still to convince people that it is actually worth


This may not be as straight-forward as it seems. York Council, a pilot

authority with a long track record for consultation, uses a mixture of

market research and focus groups to obtain residents’ views. Marketing

and social research manager David Allen realises the need for good PR to

demonstrate the impact of residents’ input but, he says: ’Their views

have to go alongside other management priorities and politicians’


However, where the council can respond directly, it does so, and is

conscientious about maintaining strong media relations. ’Reporting back

to the residents is key to what being a local council is all about,’

says head of communications Melanie Boast.

Whatever communication methods they have at their disposal, many

councils realise that there is no substitute for direct contact with the


However, the contact has to be carefully planned.

For the past three years Birmingham Council has made a point of meeting

residents in an intensive two-week period on an annual basis to discuss

budgetry priorities.

’We find the most successful strategy is to hold meetings where we know

a good cross-section of people will already be, such as libraries or

youth centres, at various times of the day. That way you get the best

cross-section of residents, and an insight into what people really

want,’ says Birmingham Council senior press and PR officer Audrey


For some councils, the key to good PR lies in devolving power to the

residents. Non-pilot Norwich City Council has a scheme which achieves

involvement, feedback and encouraging election turnout all at once.

Community Power is an initiative launched last year whereby the city is

split into 12 areas with elected area forums that meet regularly to

discuss local issues and feed the conclusions back into the Council. The

initiative has already served as a powerful PR tool for the authority -

full government-style, first-past-the-post elections have been held with

all the campaign publicity one would expect in a council election.

Norwich Council’s head of communications Nikki Rotsos says: ’The scheme

has not only made a difference locally, but, because elected forums are

unusual, it has boosted our national profile.’

The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is the first authority to

improve communication with residents by abolishing its committee

structure for a mayor and elected deputies with specific

responsibilities. These make policy proposals which go under public

scrutiny before being passed.

’After a poor turnout at the last elections, we decided to get people

more interested in the council by giving them an individual who they can

identify with specific council decisions and who they can hold to

account,’ says head of communications Louise Raisey. The council has

also set up a Borough Partnership forum designed to consult businesses

and local groups before decisions affecting them are made.

There is no doubt that councils are making an effort to improve the

quality of their communications and interaction with residents. Next

year the Association of London Government plans to publish a guide to

consulting the community based on the experiences of Best Value pilot

councils, which may help the slower authorities to keep up.

However, from a PR point of view, the real challenge is yet to come.

’Longer term, authorities which succeed will be those that are best at

sharing information internally and who can convince the public that

services have changed and that they have listened,’ says MORI’s Ben



When Haringey Council found itself at the bottom end of the annual Tidy

Britain Group London Litter League two years ago, it knew it was time

for some hard-hitting measures. The campaign ’Don’t mess with us’,

winner of the 1998 PR Week Best Public Sector Award, was launched by the

council to show its own efforts to keep the borough tidy and encourage

residents to take responsibility for street cleanliness.

The council carried out a survey to identify target audience groups and

determine which areas required priority action. Using the information,

it developed a series of messages and slogans designed to warn residents

about penalties for littering and encourage responsible behaviour by

spelling out correct disposal procedures. The messages were backed up

with threats of instant fines and the launch of a ten-strong

anti-dumping patrol unit with a remit to gather photographic and video

evidence for use in prosecuting offenders.

The hard-hitting messages appeared on posters, leaflets and

advertisements and were circulated to the local press. Anyone caught

littering or putting household rubbish out for collection on the wrong

day was given an instant pounds 25 fine, and residents were warned of a

maximum pounds 20,000 fine for dumping of hazardous material. Meanwhile,

new road sweepers were put into operation, dog-waste bins were installed

in parks, and refuse bags were distributed to businesses to enforce the

campaign message.

As the campaign progressed, feedback from focus groups and surveys was

used to monitor its effectiveness and to fine-tune the messages. In

under two years, the campaign has inspired a 22 per cent improvement in

street cleanliness according to the council’s street cleanliness index.

Residents are more aware of how and when to dispose of daily rubbish,

and 85 per cent of residents now recycle using the council’s

door-to-door recycling scheme.

The disciplinary tone of the campaign has proved effective in drawing

attention to the litter problem and changing behaviour. However, such

tough measures would not have been popular without the council’s

emphasis on treating the campaign as a partnership rather than a battle

by stressing the role of residents in the clean-up with tactics such as

inviting people to tip-off the patrol units about offenders.

’To our knowledge, no one who has been fined has dropped litter since,

and we have got rid of the blame culture - residents were blaming

business for the problem and vice versa,’ says Haringey Council press

officer Marcia McKnight.


Trying to attract a child’s attention can be a challenge at the best of

times, but for a PR person wanting to sing the praises of local

government services, the task is magnified.

Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council had made several unsatisfactory

attempts to address its younger residents through the council


It was prompted to revise its communications strategy when a local

consultation exercise revealed that many residents had little awareness

of the council’s role in the community.

As part of a broad plan to tailor messages to specific age groups, the

council’s four-strong PR team devised a campaign which involved visiting

local schools to give half-hour interactive presentations on council


Now running into its second academic term with a waiting list reaching

into the New Year, the campaign, ’What does the council do for me?’,

appears to have hit upon a winning formula for communicating council

messages to five- to ten-year-olds. The secret of the initiative’s

success lies in communicating with the children at their own level.

’We might ask the children what they did at the weekend and if they say

they went to the cinema, we tell them that the council runs the leisure

site,’ says PR manager, Jacqueline Horrix.

The presentation is backed up with a slide show using references to the

children’s recreational interests. ’We use references the children can

recognise, like the Spice Girls to illustrate drama and dance classes,’

says Horrix. When preparing for a presentation, the PR team researches

the issues specific to the school’s local area and to the audience’s age

group. ’One or two years’ difference in age can make a difference to the

kind of issues the children are interested in,’ says Horrix.

The children are challenged to ask and remember as much as they can

about the council, with the incentive of a surprise at the end of the


They are also asked if there is anything about their community that they

would like to change, which gives the council valuable feedback on its

services. At the end of the presentation, a member of the PR team

dressed in a dragon costume-the council’s mascot-joins the class to quiz

the children on their lesson and hand out prizes in the form of council

publicity trinkets.

The campaign has invited such a positive response that the council plans

to produce a school text book next year.

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