Just recently, one comms2point0 post asked us all to stop navel gazing and look to the stars instead. As part of this the writer cautioned readers to be wary of any new 'trust' campaign and the Building Trust campaign in particular. One of the authors of that report now responds by arguing that trust is perhaps one of the most important assets we have got to get us to the stars.
by Neil Wholey
Steve Chu in his comms2point0 post here has set a challenge which I totally agree with that we must “make the case for communications to be at the centre of our organisations’ thinking”. One of Steve’s points is my number one priority to “show that communications can be a frontline resource, either by reducing the costs of service provision, improving frontline efficiency, or targeting declining resources more effectively... prove your £20,000 campaign has saved your organisation £1 million.”
I disagree with him on one point. An understanding of trust, as recommended by the Building Trust project I helped produce, does not distract from this objective but is an integral part. You cannot develop a financial model of the impact of public sector communications without it. My challenge to anyone who feels Building Trust is the wrong direction is to find one robust evaluation report that does not rely in part on understanding trust.
Fire and Rescue Services provide a great example. If a fireman asked you to jump off a building you would. Imagine the storm of protest if local government officers went door-to-door doing health and safety inspections. Yet Fire and Rescue Services do this every day and have clear evaluation that it successful reduces incidents of fires. They, and the people that work for them, have a strong brand which people understand and they have the trust of the public. If they damaged this trust they would soon find doors slammed in their face. The level of trust is a key determinate of success.
Building trust is not a priority for the Fire Service as they have it in bucket loads and can use it. The priority is maintaining trust. Local government has worked hard over the last decade through the Reputation Campaign to improve relationships with the public. It is only now that we can see the financial benefits. Those that engage with the public are more likely to be trusted on policy and service change. The LGA’s Customer-led transformation programme of 63 social media and customer insight projects - www.local.gov.uk/productivity - has identified a £330 million saving from a £7 million government investment.
One of their conclusions is “[local councils] have to understand how customers perceive their own and their partners’ services and then use this intelligence to redesign, reconfigure or reduce services.”
It’s like any relationship whether it be a marriage or in the workplace. Councils and the public live in the same area and have to be committed to making it work based on mutual trust. Where it does work this leads to improved lives and economic growth. Where the relationship has broken down nothing constructive can happen. The public need to trust the motives and capabilities of their council, and local authorities have to trust the capacity and willingness of the public.
We need to be delivering behaviour change, reduced demand and the unlocking of capacity of the community. This is incredibly difficult in local government considering the range of activities and the broadness of our communication tools. Communications has to be part of a broad understanding of the impact of strategic policy and service actions. Building Trust was developed by LGcommunications, SOLACE and the LGA as they see communications as a vital component. Trust runs as a golden thread through advanced policy and communication outcomes.
We have to keep focused on short-term pressures but not to the extent that we are distracted from long-term goals and responsibilities. You cannot address the needs of society from adult social care to public health through a tidy fully evaluated communications campaign within one year. The councils that will fail to meet the long-term financial challenges will be those who sacrifice the trust they have built up over years for short-term financial gain. Their distrust of the public to accept change will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They may be able to bulldoze through cuts and service changes to balance the books this year, but will find the barricades up and no-where to go except harder and deeper the next. The councils that succeed will understand the asset they have, maintained and nurtured through communications, and what they can achieve through utilising it. They will reach the stars quicker, and with less pain, if they trust that such a future is possible.
Neil Wholey is Head of Research and Intelligence at Westminster City Council and leads LGinsight as part of LGcommunications.