Local government has had an image problem for as long as most of us can remember. Comments like, 'people like our services more than they like us' are commonplace, but the sector does relatively little about it.
But enough is enough. Prompted by falling satisfaction scores in last year's national best value performance indicator surveys - despite Audit Commission reports of improved performance - the Local Government Association and the Improvement & Development Agency are launching a five-year strategy to address the sector's reputation.
There also needs to be an improved understanding of the problem. Much is known about what drives the reputation of individual councils at a local level, but very little is known about what influences perceptions of councils or the sector's brand as a whole. To compare it with health, where people love their local hospital but are more ambivalent about the NHS, it is clear many people have a particular view of their council but a weaker and more negative perception of the sector as a whole.
There are two areas for action: national and local. A key issue is the varied state of local reputations among residents. Among the counties, it varies from 35% to 75% who are 'satisfied'. In London, it varies from 35% to 79%. This variation is much greater than for many other institutions.
Before embarking on a campaign to boost local government's reputation, there is much councils can do locally to improve their image. MORI research over the last 20 years has consistently highlighted a set of core issues and services that, if delivered well, would improve the reputation of local government. These are street scene and the public realm, communications - especially demonstrating value for money - and staff responsiveness/accessibility. While the big-ticket services of education and social care have relatively little impact on overall reputation - most people do not use them - we need to build awareness of the 'invisible' services most people take for granted.
Over the next year, the LGA and IDeA will be pushing for all councils to sign up to actions to boost their local image, covering the services mentioned above. For example, all the evidence shows that annual delivery to households of a decent A-Z of services is an obvious example of effective communications, but how many councils do it? Leaflets accompanying council tax bills
are often a missed opportunity to demonstrate value for money.
But even if all councils are well regarded by residents, those same people can still be negative about the sector. What drives the poor brand image of local government as a whole? Members of the public have some practical experience of their own council, but their knowledge of others is largely limited to what they see in the media - and such coverage is predominately negative. Figure 1 (above) shows an analysis of the sort of national coverage the sector receives.
To assess the media's effect, the LGA and MORI will be working with volunteer councils to measure the extent to which what is reported about local government as a whole - as opposed to actual local experience - is driving national perceptions. What drives the perception that, even if one's own council is fine, there are plenty of poor councils out there?
It will confirm whether councils' media coverage is proportionately worse or better than for other public services, and whether the problem is media coverage per se as opposed to actual delivery.
The LGA/MORI project will also explore local government's national stereotype. Why is it that many key media people, who may well live in 'excellent' boroughs, express strong negative views about the sector as a whole? The project will unpick this and identify key points for change.
Where does the LGA fit in? It has already admitted that it needs to work harder to demonstrate the evidence, not the moral case, for local autonomy. In terms of convincing Whitehall and Westminster, improvements on the ground will help, but has the sector undertaken intellectually rigorous and important projects?
Lobbying Whitehall and Westminster without evidence will not work. When the LGA pushed for extra local government settlement money in the pre-Budget statement, it was backed by evidence from more than 100 councils. This approach to evidence and new member structures and senior appointments in the LGA will sharpen its impact.
But this work to promote the sector's reputation as a whole will only be successful if the majority of leaders and chief executives buy into this long-term process. Achieving collective ownership of the sector's image problem is vital. The LGA and IDeA will hold meetings with councils over the next few months to develop plans in more depth. If you are interested in being involved, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Director, MORI Social Research Institute, working on secondment at the
Local Government Association