I wouldn’t usually quote a lengthy section from a guide I could simply link to, but the introduction sums up the current situation facing local government very succinctly:
“These are potentially daunting times for local government. Expectations are rising and budgets are getting smaller. Services are better, but trust in many institutions is falling.
“Communities are frequently more able and willing to step up, but they’re also less deferential, and when things go wrong, they come armed with the tools of judicial review, Freedom of Information requests and social media.
“In this context, a serious effort to involve and understand residents is more important than ever.
“Satisfaction with local government remains fairly high compared to other organisations, and this provides local authorities with both opportunity and responsibility.
“By grasping what people need and what they can do for themselves, authorities can work better with communities and be more efficient. By bringing people in on decision-making, councils can get decisions right, manage expectations and improve relationships with residents.”
It’s against this background that I have recently become part of a local government communications team. Employed as a content creative, my role is to help devise and drive content across a multitude of platforms.
On the face of it, the role is to put together content that promotes council activity, encourages interest in local democracy, informs and entertains across a range of media – video, audio, photos, text, infographics, and so on.
It’s about helping officers and councillors understand what content can be created, how to use it and how to measure its success.
There’s nothing much new in this – public sector comms officers have been doing all of this and more for some time, with varying levels of success.
But it’s also about helping officers and members understand why it’s important to shift resources away from feeding the local media machine towards more direct communication and engagement with residents; to speak direct, through owned channels, rather than focus so much on using an ‘interim’ to get messages across.
It’s about telling the stories of communities in action; about sharing great ideas; about getting people involved.
That’s why this new guide is so timely and useful.
As the guide states:
“There is no perfect council when it comes to engagement. There are stronger councils and weaker ones, for sure. Most councils have elements they’re content about and elements they’re less sure of.
“But the important thing is that most councils are now trying to move in the right direction towards a relationship of mutual trust and understanding with those they serve.”
It cites projects under way in four councils:
- Hackney: “The council’s story is about how they are taking the work they have done to understand fully how residents feel about Hackney as a place, and using it to build rapport and engagement around some tough issues. They have been using creative digital techniques and innovative engagement approaches to develop the borough’s direction on schooling.”
- Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA): Their story is about the role of councillors, staff, and engaging residents and communicating the core messages about devolution.
- Staffordshire is a large county council. Its story is about using networks, assets and data to be a more responsive local authority – and about the use of community-based engagement activities to help develop quality insight to support this.
- Harlow is a district council in Essex. Its story is about creating an organisational culture that local people feel is listening to them, including work to deliver channel shift in a way that includes residents and engages with local issues.
The project that really caught my eye was the Hackney project; particularly impressive is the research and engagement they carried out to kickstart it.
Bespoke engagement with hard-to-reach segments was developed to engage young black men, those with disabilities, those in temporary accommodation and the LGBT community.
Alongside these engagement approaches, a 1,000-sample representative survey was conducted and over 3,000 questionnaires returned.
Their findings, learning and brand provided a platform for future internal and external engagement.
I’m looking forward to learning more from colleagues around the country over the coming months – and will continue to share examples of great practice here and elsewhere.