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Simon Jones: Annual reports can redress the transparency deficit

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Ask people in the pub what their council does and most will probably tell you that the council collects the bins and sweeps the streets – if residents are lucky.

The better informed realise most councils are responsible for hundreds of services. How far people get on in life, how safe they feel, and how proud they are of where they live often depends on the quality of those services.

Yet for many this is an untold story.

That’s why Rutland CC, a council I have been lucky to work with since the start of the year, has just released an annual report for residents and businesses to convey exactly what it does and how it is doing.

It is incredible to think how few councils do this. Most have budgets equivalent to FTSE 100 companies – could you imagine one of those not producing an annual report for shareholders?

Having overseen the project, I can understand why most councils don’t do them. They are incredibly hard to do.

But it is also incredibly rewarding. The project made people think about their work, what they do, why they do it and the impact it has on people’s lives.

Ultimately producing Rutland’s annual report reinforced one thing: every day councils across the UK are changing lives for the better in extraordinary ways. As comms professionals we sometimes lose sight of this, and don’t focus enough on areas like children’s services and adult social care.

There are significant financial challenges and areas where performance needs to be better, but the point of an annual report is to reveal this and use transparency as a means for driving improvement and debate.

According to the Local Government Association’s own reputation trackers, since 2012, satisfaction with councils has fallen from 72% to 64%.

One factor behind the fall is the fact that people feel less informed about what their council is doing – dropping from 66% to 59% during that same period. There are many reasons for this, the decline of local newspapers and councils’ inability to cut through social media among them.

The councils that have a strong connection with their communities tend to have a clear narrative about their ambitions for place and people. Greater transparency about what is working, what isn’t and where support from others is needed plays a massive part in this.

I come across a lot of councils that are reluctant to be more open about performance out of fear of failure. But if communities don’t know what their council is doing and how high it has set the bar then that is a failure.

Simon Jones, chair, LGcomms

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