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In a cold climate, communication is key

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One of local government’s problems is that it’s just too good. 

Since 2010 it has cut its spending by at least a third, and two-thirds of the public say they haven’t noticed any changes. 

Has there been a simple end to spendthrift ways, or are excellent managers and leaders focusing on what matters? Either way, now we enter the really tricky next phase of the cuts. Deficit reduction has been timed to slow down around the election but will be back with a vengeance in 2016.

What to do? There are some clear lessons.

Investing time in making sure there are clear messages for everyone you employ, directly or indirectly, is crucial

The one service the public at large has noticed get worse is roads. Working with more than 100 councils on the National Transport and Highways Survey, we have seen highways authorities turn this negative into a positive, levering local public dissatisfaction to protect budgets, and some successfully lobbying for new sources of funding such as private finance initiatives. In some areas we have seen double-digit improvements in public satisfaction, despite the problems.

Communication will be key, for all services. A clear story, well told, will help avoid rumour and help people adjust. There are already good examples of this across local government, but as we go into 2016 this will need to step up. In the case of highways, Blackpool’s ‘the hole story’, and Hampshire’s ‘pothole busters’ are both good examples.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and there have been interesting proposals for coping with cuts. Just recently Devon CC floated the idea of ‘road wardens’ completing basic road repairs. Inevitably this led to media carping but the idea was a great opportunity for Devon to communicate about its ‘tough choices’ consultation. Given how little people know about local government finances – or even its responsibilities – a conversation is vital.

You will need friends. If things get really difficult, having intelligent local journalists and opinion formers on your side – or at least ready to listen to you – will be vital. How good is your ‘person-marking’: who is responsible for personally briefing the 30 people locally outside the authority who can most do you good or ill? Look at your list and decide. If you haven’t got a list, start now – you can never have too many friends.

Staff come first, at least for communications. Investing time in making sure there are clear messages for everyone you employ, directly or indirectly, is crucial. In the times of abundance before 2010 there was a direct correlation between authorities’ performance and how well-informed staff felt they were. 

At times like this, spending time on internal communications matters more than ever.

Ben Page, chief executive, Ipsos MORI

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