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Tony Travers

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To achieve results, local government needs to work on its image.

Here is a paradox: there have never been more media outlets for news, yet it is almost impossible for councils to inform their residents about what they do and how services improve the locality. Local government difficulties in keeping the public informed are a regular feature of Ipsos MORI’s output. Recent figures suggested only 32% of people know a ‘great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’ about their local council.

The same Ipsos MORI analysis suggested the public does not make the link between good service scores and ‘value for money’ or, indeed, with ‘improving the area’. People do not recognise that where an authority provides good services these contribute to making the locality a better place to live. What is needed, according to the polling, is information. The public will only realise that the council is doing well when it is told about it.

Most councils make efforts to let their residents know what they are doing. Many publish magazines or newspapers. Some launch consultation exercises with the hidden purpose of letting people know the council is attempting to deliver good services. But it is clear from Ipsos MORI’s work and, frankly, the low esteem in which local government is held that the message doesn’t get through.

The Local Government Association has also made valiant efforts to get across the idea that councils are making people’s lives better. But these efforts have also failed to convince a fractious and cynical public that local government is any more than a conspiracy of fun-hating, high-taxing, nanny state-loving busybodies. One council banning conkers gets more publicity than a hundred improving street cleaning.

Individual authorities and the LGA need to work on a longer-term strategy to address this problem. In a world where a few postings on Facebook can generate a massive booze-fuelled party on London’s Underground on the last night before mayor Boris Johnson’s alcohol ban it would appear that councils need to invest in new media if they are to get any kind of message across to younger voters. While TV, radio and the press remain important to a proportion of the population, the world has moved on.

It may even be necessary to consult the PR and advertising industry about better means of transmitting local government’s successes to the public. Businesses do achieve such a transformation from time to time, though it is essential that the message matches reality. Marks & Spencer managed such a change in recent years. Even parts of government can do so: remember the mess the passport service once was? Yet today it is seen as efficient and effective.

There is no question local authorities need to work assiduously on their image, individually and collectively. If there were a significant improvement in the popularity of local democracy, it would be easier to push for devolution and decentralisation. That would be a rare prize.

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