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JOINT PR APPROACH FROM SCUPRO AND AUDIT COMMISSION INSPECTION SERVICE

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Council communicators and the Audit Commission's inspection service can work together to help the public understand...
Council communicators and the Audit Commission's inspection service can work together to help the public understand the improvement agenda in local services.

That's the rationale behind a joint guide to best value inspection public relations prepared by the Society of County and Unitary Public Relations Officers and the Inspection Service, launched today.

Richard Scott, SCUPRO vice chairman, and Nottinghamshire CC's communications manager explained: 'It's the business of local councils to provide the quality services people need. And while it's not necessary for local people to understand the process of inspection, they do deserve to know how their services measure up.

'One of SCUPRO's aims is to raise the profile of local government. Praising excellence and being unambiguous about the will to improve anything less than good can only help achieve this.'

Jennifer Tankard, public relations manager for the Audit Commission's Inspection Service, said:

'The inspection service is keen to work with councils to ensure local people are aware of work to continually improve public services. This joint guide demonstrates our commitment to working in partnership with councils and to keeping local people informed about the quality of their local services.'

The new guide is available below.

It is aimed at those working in council public relations and briefly sets out where communications fits in to the inspection process and how the inspectorate's media relations are organised. It looks at opportunities for working together and how to deal with difficult or controversial inspection reports.

Best Value Inspections: A Public and Media Relations Guide for Councils working with the Best Value Inspectorate.

1. Introduction

This guide has been compiled by the Society of Unitary and County Public Relations Officers and the Audit Commission's Inspection Service in pursuit of a common goal: positive publicity for good and improving local authority services.

This guide recognises that the communication work of the Commission's Inspection Service and the Councils it inspects should remain separate and discrete to safeguard independence and objectivity on one hand and the legitimacy of a differing local view on the other

Nevertheless co-operation informed by an understanding of each other's needs will help deliver more effective communication about improving public services to the media and the public.

2. Timetable

A typical timetable of a best value inspection is set out below:

- Stage 1: understand the context

This will normally take place about four weeks before the Inspection. The inspectors will review all relevant documents - best value review (BVR) documents, plans etc. to understand the context of the inspection. They will request any additional documents they would like to receive from the authority.

- Stage 2: review performance

Having understood the context, the inspectors will plan the reality checks, which will be aimed at examining particular points of concern or interest to have emerged from the review of the documentation.

- Stage 3: brief the authority

The inspectors will tell the authority what they intend inspecting. The authority may suggest amendments to make to the programme, which the inspectors may choose to accept. At this point, the Inspection Service will inform the authority of its intention to issue a press release and agree that neither side will comment to the press about the inspection process or the contents of the report until a final report has been signed off by all parties.

- Stage 4: reality checks

This is when the inspectors examine the service from an operational point of view. It may involve interviewing managers, front line staff, or customers. It will involve unannounced visits to service delivery points, so that practice can be compared with claims made on behalf of the service. This stage will take between 5 and 10 days of the inspection. Reality checks will be used to make informed comment on operational issues surrounding service delivery.

- Stage 5: the interim challenge

Inspectors will tell the authority how they view the service and indicate how they rate it on a 0 - 3 star scale (poor - excellent), and what they regard as the likelihood that the service will improve (from little chance, to every chance). Inspectors will take feedback from the authority which may result in an amendment to its final verdict.

- Stage 6: final report

Having considered the Council's response to the Interim Challenge the Inspectors will issue a final report, which will be published, in whole and in summary, locally and nationally. The final report will have clear recommendations which will assist the authority in improving its service to an extent that it is within the top quarter of performers, nationwide. The day before the report is published, the Commission's press office will share the wording of the release with the authority. This is for information only, not for comment and amendment.

- Stage 7: follow up

The authority will be told that the inspectors will conduct a follow up, to ensure the points in the BVR are being implemented and to note progress in adopting the inspectors recommendations. In cases where the inspectors have concerns about the way in which a service is being delivered, they may propose a further inspection, or refer the authority and service to the appropriate Secretary of State, to consider an intervention.

3. Key Messages

Councils will have their own key messages for media relations work, as does the Inspectorate (see 4 below). However, here is a set of key messages, which might legitimately be used by both, as appropriate.

- Council and Inspectorate working together to deliver improving services with clear benefits for local people;

- Council welcomes the speed of Inspection process \ diligence \ insight of inspectors;

- Inspectors recognise the commitment / dedication of Council employees / councillors;

- Both sides are confident weaknesses will be addressed and strengths will be built on.

4. Best Value Inspectorate media practice.

4.1Inspectorate press releases

The aims of every release issued by the Inspection Service about a Best Value Inspection are:

- To publicise that an Inspection has taken place and the report of that inspection is being published;

- To raise awareness among the public of the continual improvement of public services;

- To encourage the public to understand what services their council provides and what they should expect from those services;

- To notify the press that a report has been issued and provide a brief summary of that report and quote by the Regional Director / Lead Inspector.

The release will be issued to all relevant local press and, on occasions, to national and specialist press.

The Inspectorate will share the wording of its press releases with the Council the day before the release is issued.

This is for information only, not for comment and amendment.

The release will then be issued at the same time as the report.

4.2Media interest during an inspection

In general the Inspection Service will not speak to the press until the final report has been published.

There have been occasions when the initial findings of inspection reports have been leaked to the press in a way that has been unhelpful to the authority being inspected.

The Commission now has a policy that - in those authorities where they believe leaks may occur - they will issue a brief statement at relevant points during the inspection (having agreed a strategy first with the authority). This statement will explain what the inspection is and the progress made by inspectors. It will not share views on the likely outcome of the inspection.

If authorities think damaging leaks may occur, the Inspectorate is more than happy to work along side Council communications departments to agree a 'leaks strategy'!

5. Good communications practice for Councils

- Involve a communications specialist in initial discussions around inspection.

- and in work as inspection progresses, particularly to identify hot spots

- The communications specialist should attend the Interim Challenge presentation, if possible, as this is a good opportunity to get an early indication of the inspection's findings and recommendations

- The draft inspector's report is shared with the Council five working days before publication, for final comment. PR practitioners can identify positives and negatives and begin to prepare for them with officers and Members.

NB: Information contained in draft reports is confidential and not for publication. Publicity on final reports is embargoed until the report is released.

It is not the purpose of this protocol to list all of the options and opportunities available to the communications specialist. This advice is available elsewhere (See Appendix).

But some important issues include:

- Check and re-check dates

- Be clear who is keeping key members informed. Work with them to develop the Council's media position

- Resolve who is to be the single authoritative, credible and appropriate spokesperson.

- Prepare background facts, figures and supporting information

- Don't neglect internal communications

- Consider whether specific stakeholder communications is needed

- Consider the opportunities for third party support for your service or improvement plans

- Consider how you might respond to third party criticism

6. Working together

While the Inspectorate will not usually issue joint releases with any authority, it is usually happy to liaise in advance with the authority over release times.

The Inspectorate has indicated a willingness to hold joint press conferences where this seems appropriate. In these circumstances there should be no surprises; Authority and Inspectorate need to be well briefed on each other's position.

7. Dealing with high profile / controversial reports

Where an inspection is likely to be high profile or controversial, the Commission's press office will be happy to jointly work with the authority on a strategy to deal with publicity. The Lead Inspector may contact the press office to discuss this, but the authority's communication specialist should also flag this up at the earliest opportunity.

Appendix

Contacts, Support and Advice

If at any time the Council's communications specialist wishes to discuss press and PR around inspections you can do so with:

The Lead Inspector attached to your authority (these are all listed on the website at www.bestvalueinspections.gov.uk);

The Commission press office (Citigate until end September) on 020 7838 4848;

Jennifer Tankard, Public Relations Manager, 020 7463 3446.

Managing the Public Face of Inspections - A Toolkit for Local Authorities* takes a detailed look at how Councils can communicate effectively through an Inspection process. This guide will be especially useful for Councils with limited public relations functions.

*Published by the Local Government Association, September 2001.£20, local authorities£10. LGA Code CA146.

Also available from the LGA, code CA 145 is: Changes to the Publicity Code Explained written by Michael Baker on behalf of SCUPRO and the LGA.

July 2001.£15, local authorities£10.

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