why the tyranny of public notices needs to end - and what to do about it

Almost £70 million must be handed over to newspapers with falling sales in a year for print ads. In 2015 that needs to change.

by Dan Slee

It’s an obscenity that even as libraries close and care is cut that there is a £67.85 million back-door subsidy paid by local government to newspapers.

A what? And how much?

This is the true cost of councils being forced by law to pay over-the-odds for public notices tucked away in the back of printed newspapers being read by fewer and fewer people.

It is a throwback, a misguided sweetener to the newspaper industry and comes from the days when the local paper was the only show in town.

What are public notices? They’re announcements of where double yellow lines are to be painted, who has applied for a taxi licence and an application from a pub licensee for a late night opening licence. It is the bread and butter of a community.

Should they be communicated and publicised? Absolutely.

Can it be done without swingeing annual charges? Yes.

Being forced over a barrel to pay to communicate through local newspapers is the last throwback to a world before the internet.

It is wrong.

It flies in the face of government policy.

It is print-by-default in a digital-by-default world.

It must stop.

This is why and here is how we can do it.

The Government department in charge of local government has asked for ‘councils, newspapers and others’ to take a new look at how public notices are distributed. Any solution is dead in the water unless councils are stopped being made to pay for expensive print notices - or even pay for digital ones.

Really? Councils have to communicate like this?

Yes. Bonkers, isn’t it? There is a raft of legislation that mean that councils must take out newspaper ads before they take certain decisions. The aim is to publicise and encourage people to come forward with comment and opinion. Getting people involved is absolutely a good thing. The more people are informed and take part in the decision making process the better.

Her Majesty’s Government’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher has written eloquently about this being the digital century. I’d agree with that. In the digital century people find out about what is happening through networks and the web. Not through small ads. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time you bought a local newspaper? When was the last public notice you read? And can you remember what it was about?

What is the state of local government?

In short, perilous. Every penny counts and in Town Halls up and down the land small sums of money and budget decisions are being argued about. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts 1.1 million job losses by 2019 across the public sector. Birmingham City Council Leader Albert Bore has talked of the ‘end of local government as we know it.’ Government funding cuts to local government are touching 40 per cent and spending power is falling by 25 per cent according to a critical National Audit Office report which observes that the Department for Communities and Local Government doesn’t understand the impact of cuts.

In other words, cuts are being made and every penny counts. Which is why being forced to spend on newspaper ads is wrong.

But how much do the public notices cost?

Think tank Local Government Information Unit - LGiU - calculated that in 2012 public notices in newspapers were costing £67.85 million. Public Notices: The Case for Radical Reform: Part One’ shows that this is on average £181,000 per authority. In some cases, the report says, public notices incurred a rate three times as expensive as normal display ads and reaching over £20 per column centimetre in some publications.

“This is a lot of money, especially when councils are trying desperately to !nd savings. It is also an outdated system that has been left behind by technological advances. The current system provides no feedback to councils and ignores the fact that the audience is moving away from printed newspapers, to a varied digital media landscape.

“LGiU believes change is necessary in the following areas: councils should be free to decide where is best to place public notices, more work needs to be done to de-jargon and standardise the content of public notices,  councils who do publish notices online should o"er users an email subscription service, allowing users to opt-in to receive public notices, hyperlocal, neighbourhood websites, as well as traditional local media news sites, should be encouraged to carry feeds of council notices the government should look into the possibility of supporting the development of a central online portal for publishing public notices.

  • Public Notices: The Case for Radical Reform: Part One. LGiU.


But who reads newspapers these days?

Some people do. Ofcom in their annual Communications Market Report says that adults in the UK spend 15 minutes a day reading newspapers or looking at newspaper sites. For some people, they keep them informed. But these figures are dropping.

In comparison, adults spend 36 minutes on websites or apps and 26 minutes on social media. The breakdown is here.

In Walsall, where I worked in local government communications, the local paper the Express & Star in 2013 sold around 10,000 copies of the Walsall edition in a borough of more than 269,323 people. The newspaper industry says that between two and five people read each paid-for copy. For the sake of argument, if that was three people per copy that means 11 per cent of Walsall get to see the public notice. That’s if everyone reads the paper from cover-to-cover. That’s not a reason for paid-for public notices in print.

The figures are replicated across the country according to database JICREG with 67,759 copies of the Birmingham Mail on a Friday in a city of 2,440,986. In Greater Manchester, this is 126,293 on their busiest day for the Manchester Evening News in a population of 2,685,400. In Glasgow, the Evening Times reaches 33,397 in a population 2,850,000. The online readership of these three newspapers will be far higher but figures are difficult to obtain. None of these newspapers show public notices when you enter the search term in their websites.

I've heard the anachronistic argument that somehow only newspapers can be trusted to publish public notice content. Somehow the act of handing over 200 words and paying through the nose for it to appear in the back of newspapers that few people in a borough read afford some undefined magic propertiies. This is, of course, balderdash.

The days when newspapers are the only means of communicating have ended. They are one of a number of channels. The requirement to take out public notice ads with them should end. Sometimes, they’ll be the best way of communicating. But that decision should be de-centralised down to the local authority.


Four ways public notices breach Government advice

It wouldn’t be so bad if the current millstone doesn’t go against Government advice. But it does.

The 2011 DCLG  Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity is the legal yardstick. Here’s what it says:

It says publicity should be cost effective - that’s section 2. Print notices are not.

It says that they should be ‘value for money.’ Print notices are not. That’s section 10.

It says that advertising shouldn’t subsidise voluntary, public or commercial organisations. That’s section 13. That’s what print notices do.

It also says that public relations guidance should be sought before embarking on expensive publicity. That’s section 14.


And a few other ways it breaches Government policy

The Cabinet Office published the excellent and aspirational Government Digital Strategy in 2013.

“In just over 2 decades the internet has become a huge part of our everyday lives. Today 82 per cent of adults in the UK are online. Completing transactions online has become second nature, with more and more of us going online for shopping, banking, information and entertainment. Why? Because online services tend to be quicker, more convenient and cheaper to use.

“But until now government services have stood out by their failure to keep up with the digital age. While many sectors now deliver their services online as a matter of course, our use of digital public services lags far behind that of the private sector.

“Government has got to do better. This Digital Efficiency Report suggests that transactions online can already be 20 times cheaper than by phone, 30 times cheaper than postal and as much as 50 times cheaper than face-to-face .

“By going digital by default, the government could save between £1.7 and £1.8 billion each year. But this isn’t just about saving money - the public increasingly expects to access services quickly and conveniently, at times and in ways that suit them. We will not leave anyone behind but we will use digital technology to drive better services and lower costs.”

  • Frances Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office


This is all excellent stuff. It articulates exactly why local government should be digital by default and not be held back by the anachronism of print public notices.


And bloggers too…?

Bloggers are able to attend public meetings and video, blog and post realtime updates. This is a good thing and opens up the whole often very dull decision making process to public scrutiny. This is an excellent step from DCLG. They hailed it as: ‘a boost for local democracy and the independent free press, councils in England were brought into the 21st century.’

That freedom should be opened up for bloggers too. How can they carry data from public notices alongside the mainstream Press?


So what would all this look like?

Information can be communicated effectively using the web. It could be added to a council page. An RSS feed or a widget could allow others - newspapers, broadcasters or bloggers - provided free-of-charge to carry the feed on their own pages.

Of course, if there was a pressing business case for print advertising this could happen too. But that’s the thing. Rather than being a print-by-default position it should be one of several channels.

This already happens in two places. Firstly, the TellmeScotland website aggregates and distributes public notice alerts through text and email.

Secondly, in ice and snow a more geurilla approach sees gritting updates aggregated and distributed in the West Midlands. On Twiitter, the hashtag #wmgrit is used by authorities in the region. A coveritLive widget here can be re-used on websites.

 

So what next?

There are bright people in local government who can produce the answer. Some of them are in the localgovdigital group although relying on a handful of volunteers in the sector is not the answer.

Maybe this is for larger bodies to support with time and resources. Communications teams should take the lead and work with web to come up with solutions. Maybe, that’s SOCITM, LGComms, the LGA and others coming together with local government officers.

Whatever the future. in 2015, the current situation which sees an enforced subsidy through paid-for ads to wealthy newspaper groups should not form part of the answer.

Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.

Picture credit.