Devolution. You've heard about it but do you know what it really means for you and your area? If you’re a local government communicator it’s going to become a pretty big deal.
by Darren Caveney
Last week I attended the Local Government Association’s conference on Communicating Devolution, co-hosted with Somerset County Council and LGcomms.
I also spoke at the event - my brief was to talk about where and how digital can help with engagement on all things devolution.
During a very interesting day I was really struck by the challenges communicators face. Attendees raised many issues which fell into five broad areas.
1. The Mayor of Where?
This was a great phrase coined by one of the attendees (sorry, I didn't catch your name to credit you) It related to the geographic boundaries which will be host to devolution debates across the land. For some, the geographic boundaries may be obvious (Manchester?) For others, devolution boundaries might have no previous history of being, well, recognisable boundaries. Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire were mentioned as an area to potentially submit a formal bid – I don’t know the local context well enough to comment but for sure that’s a huge area of England to try and engage within meaningfully.
The problem is we're a parochial and sometimes selfish lot. I live in Birmingham, in the south of the city. I almost never go to the North of the city and don't have a huge interest in what may be happening there. So even engaging within the boundaries of a city will have its challenges.
I can remember cutting my teeth in local government in Sandwell (it's in the West Midlands, in case you're wondering) and launching a new identity for the council and borough. Trying to get a resident three miles down the road to relate to an identity handed to them was a challenge even then. I can still recall 'selling' the idea to local residents at town team meetings and the *lively* feedback I got from a couple of them.
An honest review of the faces and voices to feature front and central in any devolution communications and engagement strategy will be necessary. Of course an elected mayor would be an obvious place to start but we know from the Edelman Trust Barometer that we trust our senior leaders – paid and elected – less than others in our organisations. This represents a challenge and an opportunity for communicators.
Trying to engage with citizens across new and large new devolved areas like Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire - and getting them interested and involved in an elected Mayor for this area - will be a huge challenge and one not to be underestimated.
2. We've just lost a chunk of our comms team and now you want us to do what?
I can remember when my own council communications team was being cut. At the same time we were inheriting the responsibility to communicate public health. And inheriting it without the budget which had previously gone with the activity. There’s a slight feeling of déjà vu here because at a time when many public sector and local government comms teams have been cut – some significantly – they are just about to inherit a very sizeable new responsibility. The chances of effectively communicating and engaging on the subject are genuinely at risk without proper resource given to such important local powers.
3. The council will kop for it…
At the LGA devolution event, Somerset’s chief executive, Pat Flaherty, said that he felt that local government would kop for it. And I think he's right.
Like public health and LEPs before it devolution comms will inevitably fall to local government communicators. Unfortunately, some will be ill equipped to do a great job on devolution and it's daft to think otherwise.
The only chance of overcoming the barriers and engaging well with the public is to work with the wider public sector and to share the tasks.
Manchester has just taken control of a £6 billion local health and social care budget. That's the kind of prize at stake here. But local government has to reach out and be helped by its local partners, especially when it comes to communications.
4. Communicating unknowns
It’s stating the obvious but those involved in delivering devolution communications will have to know all about devolution, what it means locally and what the priorities and planned outcomes will be.
Someone I spoke to at the event is currently grappling with a restructure to their comms team as well as trying to communicate it to all staff but with little concrete detail to share. I've been there and it's difficult. He likened it to trying to market a new chocolate bar but not knowing what it would be called, what its ingredients were, how it will be packaged and what it will taste like.
It will be interesting to see how Manchester fares over the next 12 months - how engaged its residents become and how much they understand devolution because for sure if we communicators don't understand devolution we have no chance of getting residents interested and engaged.
5. What is needed right now - Filling the gaps
For those areas embarking on devo comms there are four key gaps to fill in order to make the comms activity fly.
First, there needs to be a really good story to tell: A reason for the public to care and to engage. Research suggests that there is strong public support for local decision making but much less so for elected mayors. With compelling and well-crafted content this can be achieved. Of course, the deals which regions strike will impact on the story and the offer to residents too.
Secondly, to do this there needs to be a smart strategy in place with input from all key partners. It can't be written by a lone wolf in a darkened room.
Thirdly, communicators need to utilise all channels and opportunities to reach residents. Digital will do some of the job but don’t forget the traditional channels too. And creating new, dedicated accounts and websites isn’t going to do the job on its own – we know the ‘build it and they will come’ approach has flaws. Going to where people already share and discuss local issues is an opportunity if approached in the right way.
Lastly, knowing what success looks like and managing those expectations accordingly will be critical. We heard at the LGA event in Somerset that voter turn-out for the London Mayoral elections has never gone beyond the low 40 percent mark. So what should other parts of the country expect over the next few years as devolution is rolled out to the regions? Being clear and realistic on this will be vital for local devolution comms strategies to work.
So my outtake from the conference is that communicating devolution well is going to be tricky. Not impossible by any means but it needs, time, work, plans and resource.
That is why these LGA events and the Devo Next Hub are such a good idea.
The hub features this new video which you may find useful in your communications activity.
The next LGA devolution communications conference is taking place in Newcastle on 26 May and I’d definitely recommend you get along if you can.
Darren Caveney is co-creator of comms2point0 and a creative communications specialist
image via Flickr creative commons