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Carol Grant

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Why has the TaxPayers’ Alliance decided to get stuck into local government communicators?

At the end of last year, the Tax Payers' Alliance attacked local government communicators for spending£450m on “publicity”, a figure that has allegedly doubled in 10 years. On face value, a good story.

Until you consider that for a£70bn-a-year industry, it’s pretty small beer. And that the term ‘publicity’ covers everything from a leaflet telling you when the swimming pool is open to an advertisement for a care assistant in the local paper.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance is not an impartial organisation. It is run by Conservative supporters and therefore has its own agenda. In its report on town hall profligacy, the one council highlighted as spending less on publicity is Hammersmith & Fulham LBC . No prizes for guessing which party is in control there.

Apparently, the way to save money on council publicity is to use the internet. Great for the Facebook generation but what about those who don’t like or want electronic communication? Perhaps they can just absorb information about their local council by osmosis.

Spent wisely, money used for council communication can bring big benefits for authorities and the people they serve.

Norfolk and partners' marketing campaign

A couple of years ago, Norfolk CC and its district partners in Great Yarmouth and West Norfolk, all conservative councils, asked for my help to improve their marketing of services to residents.

They had just jointly signed up to the only local public service agreement target in the country to improve resident satisfaction. At the time, satisfaction with local government was falling nationally. The Norfolk councils signed up to increase it by 10%.

They weren’t sure if this was very brave, or very foolhardy. Neither was I. As is the way with consultants, I delivered what I hoped was useful advice and moved on to the next project, silently grateful that I didn’t have a target like that to meet.

The county council had a tiny marketing team. One district had a sole PR officer, the other had part of another officer’s time. We’re not talking scores of highly paid spin doctors here. Yet together they’ve just hit their stretch target, bucking the national trend and releasing over£630,000 reward grant for the county alone. The districts are also in the money.

How did they do it? By sharing communications planning and getting the basics right.

  • They ran jointly branded pages in the county’s Your Norfolk publication, sent to 350,000 homes

  • They revamped the district council magazines with simple improvements like better writing

  • They co-ordinated publication and the delivery of an A-Z of council services to residents

  • They ran campaigns on waste, fly-tipping and cleaner streets. One result was a number of gardening clubs set up in areas of deprivation in Great Yarmouth, run solely by residents. Marketplace exhibitions allowed people to drop in and find out information about their council’s services and take part in ‘video diary’ consultations on improvements needed in their area.

  • They engaged young people in a young driver campaign, a huge issue in such a rural area. The Don’t Be A Loser campaign attracted media publicity across the county and won numerous regional and national awards.

  • They ran a campaign called Bus Stop 39 to involve young people in local government and to help them understand more about the services they use every day. This nine-week ‘blogging’ soap opera, devised with an EastEnders script writer, involved five schools in the area (including a special school). It’s another award winner.

The result of all this work is that residents are better informed and happier about the services they provide.

No smoke and mirrors, no spin-doctoring, just consistent, imaginative provision of information and opportunities to influence council decision making. You’d be hard pressed to find a better example to counter the misinformation from the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

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