A discussion took place on Twitter shaped by predictions of worse to come for local government. But should we be downcast? Or fight back? Here the director of comms at the LGA urges for the fightback.
Local government is doing some remarkable things. If any major business continued to deliver services against a budget reduction of 40 per cent it would be rightly lauded as heroic.
Well, that’s exactly what local government has done.
At the same time, our reputation remains high and we are trusted by our residents to do the right thing. However, the scale of the financial challenges often means that we, in local government, are never able to pause for a moment to reflect on the scale of our achievements.
Three years ago we set out the scale of the financial challenge facing councils. What it showed is that as we head towards the end of the decade, demand for council services will far outstrip budgets. Add into the mix an ageing population and things are going to get pretty tough. However, things are not going to change anytime soon and so our focus has to be on proposing solutions, not just listing problems.
And we’re doing exactly that. Local government is innovating and coming up with ideas which are transforming local public services. The ‘Rewiring Public Services’ launch last year and our ‘First 100 Days of the Next Government’ campaign are local government’s bold and ambitious response to the challenges we are facing.
We are leaders of our place, working more smartly across local public services and forging strong links with business. As we move towards a more commissioning role we are tackling the issues that matter most to people – schools, skills, jobs homes and yes, potholes! Crucially, we’re not only saving money but improving services at the same time. This is what people want.
Yes, our relationship with our residents is changing. We can no longer say yes all the time and may no longer deliver all the services that people have come to expect from their council. People may have to do more for themselves with support from local public services but as long as we tell the right story and explain the reasons why, we can take people with us.
This is where we come in. As communicators, we have a central role in all of this. It’s a chance for us to show what we can do. It’s an opportunity to lead the largest behaviour change programme councils have ever been involved in. As I visit councils around the country, leadership teams are recognising the value and importance of communicators and the need to connect with residents.
This is of course good news for communication teams but it does mean we can no longer keep doing the things we’ve always done in the ways we’ve always done them. We need to prove the ‘value added’ that investing in communications can deliver. If we do the right things we can play a leading in role in changing local public services. Do we have a corporate narrative and communications strategy? Are we utilising technology as part of that overall strategy? Are we engaging effectively with our staff? Are we evaluating the work we deliver to show that we are providing value for money? Or are we just sending out press releases, printing more leaflets and pointing everyone to the website – confusing ‘output’ with ‘impact’?
The Leader of Coventry City Council is absolutely right that the worst is yet to come but local government is resilient and now is not the time to be scared. Yes, the challenges are big, but so are the opportunities.
Now is the time to seize these opportunities and momentum is building. In March, the Council of Europe called a diversified base of local revenue an “urgent necessity”. In June, a Government Select Committee report supported “the principle of fiscal devolution in England”.
Within the last two months, senior figures in all three political parties have talked about reversing “a century of centralisation” and “ending a culture of Whitehall knows best.” The Scottish referendum next month is another great opportunity to shine a light on the ‘English question’ – the lack of powers for English councils – like never before. And, as ever, it will be the front line communicators who make the real difference.
As communicators, now is the time for us to show our leadership credentials. Let’s tell the story of what local government has achieved and just what good local leadership looks like.
So with new hashtag #ImNotScared perhaps we should adopt the song of the same name by Eight Wonder (bonus points if you can name the singer) as our new anthem for local government. Maybe those cool chaps at @comms2point0 could start a campaign for it to beat the X Factor single to the Christmas Number 1.
At the very least, it could make the Friday playlist.
David Holdstock is Director of Communications at the Local Government Association.
Like this post? Never ever miss another update. Sign-up for our weekly email and have them delivered to your inbox.