Demand and expectations increase, resources and time decrease. It’s a graph of doom and one we need to take charge of. Here’s a case study on how a service level agreement is the way to go.
by Ruth Fry
Why we need SLAs
Why might you be considering an SLA – service level agreements? In a word, time – or the lack of it. The pace of change across the public sector means that our internal clients expect an instant response. With resources tighter than ever and teams increasingly expected to take on complex campaign and digital roles as well as the traditional press office, we have to prioritise. And because everyone believes that their project should be top priority, it’s helpful to write down how you’re going to prioritise and get everyone signed up to it.
We decided to introduce an SLA alongside an Annual Communications Plan, which set out priority projects (a similar approach to Lucy Denton’s campaign-based comms). We’ve never had either before, but felt the need for them with increasing demand on our services meaning we were constantly pulled away from meaningful work to ‘stick out a press release’.
What should be included? We looked at where we were wasting the most time by having to repeat tasks. One was getting responses signed off by journalists’ deadlines: we were spending a lot of time chasing sign off for what we knew would be a small story or one we had no hope of influencing anyway. Our SLA sets out a clearer approach which gives us more ability to put out a common-sense response when no-one is available at short notice for sign off, and which allows us to ignore requests we feel it’s pointless spending time on.
Another big drain on time was last minute requests to designers and multiple changes to text after it had been submitted, resulting in design jobs taking much longer than anticipated, so we included protocols which state final text has to be supplied on time for us to meet agreed timescales.
We also covered off our common gripes – cracking down on ‘gonkism’ by stating that we would only order promotional goods we considered to be good value, and stamping out logoitis by including a branding protocol.
We started by setting out exactly how many hours we had available across the team. We went to each of our service Senior Management Team meetings to explain the change in working that was planned. Everyone agreed – in theory!
Meetings with individual mangers to work out their priorities followed. We drafted the Annual Communications Plan, which assigned hours to priority campaigns and routine (output) communications, and the SLA and circulated both around Senior Management Teams for feedback.
At this stage we got a few comments around dispute resolution – what if Comms didn’t use all of the allocated time? What if Design got the text on time but still didn’t deliver? We expanded the SLA to cover these eventualities, and the final version was circulated again for sign off. Finally, we started recording our time within the team.
Does it work?
Inevitably, new priorities have emerged after the Plan was finalised, but the great thing about having an SLA is that we can simply ask client services which other priority they want to take the hours from: it quashes any expectation that there is a limitless supply of communications support. We’ve also successfully rebutted negative news stories when no senior manager was available to sign off a response, and politely declined to design new logos for short-lived campaigns. Though we’re people-pleasers at heart, the SLA is giving us the confidence to say ‘no’.
Recording hours is already providing invaluable data: even if we’re not eventually able to deliver on every priority, we’ll be able to show why. It’s a learning curve, and we need to expand our research and evaluation skills so that we can prove the value of priority campaigns, but having an SLA has certainly helped us to set off in the right direction.
Ruth Fry is corporate communications manager at Perth and Kinross Council
image via the US National Archives