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Charlie Parker: Comms is the key to surviving fiscal challenges

Charlie Parker
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In this column I have previously talked about the fiscal challenges we face as a sector, the opportunities of devolution and the importance of developing leadership at all levels of our organisations.

What underpins our ability to meet these challenges is our ability to communicate well; not only with our residents, businesses and partners, but most crucially our colleagues.

Change is the new norm. Many already feel local government has always been subject to change but the pace has increased significantly and that speed brings a level of complexity we have not previously experienced. We can safely say local government will look very different by 2020 but we can be less sure of what it will look like.

A key priority is supporting our staff as well as our communities through this turbulence. Some will be fearful of what is happening and communications can play a powerful role in building understanding of the issues we face and how we will all need to work together in innovative ways to keep delivering frontline services.

Through our trading company, Westco, we do a lot of work with other councils and public bodies so we have a feel for the issues confronting colleagues across the sector. Whilst providing information remains very important, what we really need to do is to engage people with consistent, credible messages and stories that allow everyone to understand what we are talking about, be it as public service organisations, through our community leadership role or as an employer.

The realisation has been growing that communication must be a strategic function that works within an agreed policy framework to support the transformation that will help shape our localities to attract investment, create prosperity and jobs and improve the life opportunities.

The starting point is to understand what our staff and our external stakeholders really think about us. Let’s face the facts: many of our communities, stakeholders and even staff won’t feel connected to our corporate visions and missions.

It’s only after this reality check that we can develop a communications framework that will help build trust. In Westminster, we have totally revamped our staff communications to be much more engaging; we listen and then communicate simply and clearly so everyone is on the same page.

We’ve just launched our internal ‘route map to success’, developed by colleagues across the organisation. The idea is to set out the environment in which we operate and the huge changes taking place, from the explosion in digital reach and advancing technology, to changing demographics and increasing demands on social care. That sets the context in which to explain why we must rapidly adapt if we are to be able to continue delivering our ‘city for all’ vision.

Our route map’s coherent narrative explains the programmes we will need to develop, how we will all need to change the way work, and how this fits together to deliver our corporate objectives. It was crucial to the early success of this programme to empower frontline managers to discuss with us what this means with their teams in detail and on their terms, so that every member of staff could contribute to the programme and shape how his or her role plays a direct part in our overall success.

This move to a more engaging type of internal comms is being replicated with our external work, with members and officers reaching out across the city as never before. This is all supported by our digital open forums, which is a programme including public meetings hosted by the leader and an online discussion community that allows us to connect readily with individuals and communities of interest as well as with our colleagues.

Getting communications right is so important and I commend the work of LGcommunications and the Local Government Association in spreading best practice. But rather than focusing on just the practitioners, we must make sure communication is increasingly a part of everyone’s skill set if we are to deliver effective public service reform and successfully lead our councils through unprecedented change.

Charlie Parker, chief executive, Westminster City Council

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