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
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
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
’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
’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
HARINGEY: TOUGHER TACTICS TO CLEAN UP THE STREETS
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
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.
BASINGSTOKE: TARGETING YOUNGER RESIDENTS
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
The campaign has invited such a positive response that the council plans
to produce a school text book next year.