It used to be that communicating a budget for a local authority was simple. A few posters, maybe. A press release. But with budget cuts nationally every pound matters and so does how you communicate it. But in the rush to digital don't forget IRL.
Council budget-setting season is in full swing. All of us local gov people are busy promoting our budget surveys as far and wide as possible.
We’re doing the same in Buckinghamshire and I’ve just spent a morning with our Council Leader at a local train station, handing out our survey leaflets to commuters a segment of our residents who often get missed out, as they are working in London or elsewhere most of the week.
After we’d finished our platform stint, it occurred to me that this was so much more than just handing out leaflets.
Sixth-formers, pensioners, parents dropping off children for their school commute, suited and booted business people, urbane young city-goers: we saw them all. And most of them were interested in our budget consultation!
I was amazed by the number of people who, despite their rush to pick up a copy of the Metro and get on their train, took a couple of minutes to listen to why we were there; many more people than I’d anticipated said yes, they wanted to spend a few minutes completing the survey and yes, they did want to have their say on what we should be spending money on.
We even had a mini-queue of people who waited patiently while we finished our conversation with one commuter, to take a leaflet and have a quick chat with us.
At Buckinghamshire we are striving to become a digital council, and one of the things I’m working on is a widescale channelshift comms campaign aimed at getting people to interact with us more online. So I have fully bought-in to ‘digital first’, knowing that it’s the way to go for all sorts of reasons.
But grass-roots style, basic engagement activity can be so potent. It’s about talking to people, being available, open and accessible. It’s about being able to answer and help to dispel some of those negative perceptions, like: ‘well, the Council will do what it wants anyway, so what’s the point of doing a survey?’
We mustn’t stop having these crucial conversations, even though digital now runs the show. The visibility and accessibility element of a councillor standing on a station platform, or at a bus station, or in a supermarket, is something that digital can’t replace.
So let’s try to make sure that we find a bit of time to still talk to residents sometimes, face to face. Because in this brave new digital world, face-to-face still has its place.
Helen Fincher is media officer at Buckinghamshire County Council.