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Feature: opening up the town hall

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Effective communication is key to high levels of resident satisfaction, says Emma Parsons

Just one in 20 people understands what services councils provide, while only one in 100 talk highly of their council, according to research by the Local Government Association.

The latest report into public perceptions of council performance by Ipsos MORI is equally discouraging. “The difference between resident satisfaction with services and overall satisfaction with councils remains unhealthily strong,” says the report, Frontiers of performance in local government IV: place shapers or shaped by place?

Residents do not make the link between the quality of their local services and who the provider of those services is. While they may admit their streets are clean and their bins are collected efficiently, they still express dissatisfaction with their council. In short, people do not really know what they are getting in return for their council tax.

The obvious answer to this confusion is better communication. Councils provide the services, but often not the PR to go with them. Just 42% of respondents in the Ipsos MORI research say they are kept well informed by their council, and this decreased from 51% in 2003-04.

In just three councils the performance indicator score for the way they communicate actually exceeds that for the services they are delivering. Leaving aside the City of London because its circumstances are unique, what is it that Kensington & Chelsea RBC and Wandsworth LBC are getting right?
Both have identified the importance of an effective newspaper or magazine, a good website and a strong corporate image. Both admit they probably don’t do anything terribly different from others, but they focus on getting these simple things right.

“We try to make our monthly magazine relevant, we’re very keen on campaigns and issues,” says Steve Mayner, head of public affairs at Wandsworth. “We constantly identify
issues which affect local people, like post office closures and Heathrow’s expansion.”
Wandsworth has developed methods to deal with the particular challenges presented by its population. “We have the highest rate of domestic arrivals in the country 25,700 arrived in Wandsworth last year, that’s one in 11 people, and we think that’s an underestimate. A similar number leave, so it’s a huge turnover,” says Mr Mayner.

“We run a lot of campaigns on the web. You reach different people that way. We have new stories every day and we now have a facility where people can comment on a story directly on to the website.”

Ward meetings are put on the website so if people can’t make it they can ask a question online and it will be answered. “We’re conscious we have a young population who are fast moving and we’ve got to keep up with them,” says Mr Mayner.

Two distinct groups which present particular challenges for communication in Wandsworth are the large transient population of overseas visitors who stay for a year or two, and new communities of people moving into “smart new river-front apartment blocks,” says Mr Mayner. Both of these groups may not feel the council is something they need to engage with, but Wandsworth works hard to engage them nonetheless.

“It’s a constant battle to show you’re relevant to them. One of the battles we’ve taken up is helicopter noise which affects everyone who lives on the river because the helicopter flight paths follow it,” says Mr Mayner.

“We have very high numbers of South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders here, and we do a mini version of our magazine for them once a year which just tries to say to them: ‘Look, we know you’re here and you’re important to us, you may not know what your council does so here we are and come and make use of our services’.”

A strong corporate identity is “absolutely essential” so “people know who you are and what you’re doing”, adds Mr Mayner.

Wandsworth has another unique factor which helps its reputation the lowest council tax in the country. Unsurprisingly, there is a link between satisfaction with council performance and council tax. About half of residents say they are unconvinced their council offers value for money, according to Ipsos MORI’s research. Other councils don’t have Wandsworth’s luxury of a low council tax, but there are other steps they can take.

The LGA’s Reputation campaign has identified two areas that are crucial to get right if a council is to improve its standing in the community. Improving the local environment is the obvious way to keep people happy about where they live, but communications are the key to making people understand exactly what the council does. For both areas it has produced a list of core actions.

For communications the five steps include providing an A-Z guide to council services and publishing a regular magazine or newspaper, managing the media effectively and adopting good internal communications. The LGA says these steps will “show your residents what they get for their money”.
“There’s a large number of councils which have signed up to the LGA’s project but there are still some that haven’t and these things [the LGA’s five steps] really are prerequisite,” says Mike Browne, vice chair of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations local government group.

One reason residents are often unsure about the services their council provides is the confusing structure of local government. Some people do not know if it is the city or county council responsible for a particular service, and as councils work increasingly closely with health service providers and in other partnerships, these areas of service delivery need clarifying too.

The answer? “Strong corporate branding,” says Mr Browne. “It’s about making sure that in any partnership arrangement there are clear rules about how that service is presented in terms of branding.”

Another common issue is how the council prioritises communications. “There are a lot of people in local government who are communications people who don’t necessarily get to sit at the right table in the council,” Mr Browne adds. “It’s about how corporately the organisation tackles communications, having access to the senior management team and being able to advise on strategy, not just respond.
“One of the key things about local government is how well you can share best practice. There is very good practice out there and because we’re in the public sector we’re not afraid to copy other people’s knowledge. So it’s really a case of taking advantage of this.”

Having worked in communications in a district council, a county council and a London borough, Mr Browne has noticed an across-the-board decline in local newspapers: “So that means that council publications come into their own and fill the gap. Most councils now produce a publication but the quality varies wildly.”

At Kensington & Chelsea a good website, a good newspaper and an A-Z of services is “essential”, according to leader Merrick Cockell (Con), who takes personal responsibility for its communications.
“How are residents expected to know what you’re about if you’re not communicating with them? But there’s another element beyond and that’s the whole culture of how you interact with your residents,” he says.

Best value performance indicators for Kensington & Chelsea show that the belief among residents that it does a good or excellent job is one of the highest in the country. “Our figures for this leapt up by 8% at a time when we had a lot of contentious projects going on,” says Cllr Cockell. “I found this quite perplexing.”

The council had been consulting on an unpopular plan for an environmental redesign of Sloane Square. The consultation was expensive and independent. “We threw everything at it, and we didn’t like the response 72% of people were against what we were trying to do. When we got the result we shelved the project.”

Cllr Cockell concluded the council’s popularity leapt at this time because of its openness: “We weren’t just consulting because we had to, it was that willingness to take the risk. Their views matter it’s an important message.”

His conclusion is backed up by Ipsos MORI research which finds a direct correlation between overall satisfaction with a council and opportunities for participating in decision making.

Cllr Cockell adds: “We have invested a lot of money in communications with residents. We made a big shift into accepting that however right our ambitions may be, unless you can communicate with residents and get support then you’ve lost the argument before you’ve even started.”

Kensington & Chelsea produces RBKC direct, an email newsletter for people who want to know more about a particular subject, as well as an automatic email alert system to inform people on subjects they have asked about. It also produces specialist newsletters when it’s running a big project.
However, not every method of communication works. Kensington & Chelsea has made the occasional “foray into new technology” with films and podcasts, but they don’t get watched on the website. Mr Cockell thinks they are not “rapidly responsive enough”. This suggests that despite there being many ways of using new technology to communicate, the most effective ways seem to be the established methods.

Local government still has a long way to go to win over public opinion. The move towards localism and more community involvement should help. But good communication and a strong, recognisable brand, are also key to convincing the electorate that their council tax is being spent wisely.

Communication methods
>> Canterbury City Council found residents were unaware of the services it provided and there was confusion over which services were the responsibility of the city and the county. It now produces an A-Z of council services as a 24-page, A5 booklet which includes bite-sized information about services as well as contact details. It is delivered annually to all 71,465 households and businesses in the district.
>> Councils are coming up with their own ways of communicating with traditionally hard-to-reach groups, such as those described above in Wandsworth. In Stevenage BC, for example, the guide to local services is produced in different languages, in Braille, in large print and on audio-tape.
>> Corby BC has come up with a brave and unique way of communicating with residents. It has gone into partnership with its local newspaper to identify and clean up ‘grot-spots’ and deal with fly-tipping. People report these eyesores to the paper, which takes photographs and runs a story. The council then cleans up and the paper runs another story showing the progress.

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