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It is reassuring that local government has maintained a rather quaint approach to communications, despite the gover...
It is reassuring that local government has maintained a rather quaint approach to communications, despite the government's insistence on modernisation. But like all good things, this must come to an end.

The Audit Commission report, Trust in the public sector, gives a startling insight into what people think about local government managers and leaders.

The report examines the public perception of hospitals, the police and councils; revealing that less than half those surveyed trust their council to deliver on its promises.

It says: 'The quality of leadership is a significant issue - of the services and organisations considered in this research, the public is most likely to associate [councils] with having poor leaders and managers. It is clear that informal accounts of councils between family and friends do not tend to increase trust in this part of the public sector.'

Successive governments are undoubtedly to blame for the poor image of councils. Tony Travers, who heads the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics says: 'It would be unfair to put the present governments in a rogues' gallery, without adding the governments of John Major, Margaret Thatcher and James Callaghan. This sort of finding is explicable in a number of ways, some of which have to do with central government and its relentless attack on local government. There has been a focus on a small number of local authorities which have got ministers into a flap and this has had a pernicious effect on the whole of local government.'

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Local Government Association vice-chair Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart (Con) blames the government too. He says: 'The way the government behaves and speaks about councils is influential to public attitudes; the recent incorrect and inappropriate statements about school funding have been particularly unhelpful.

'It is also disappointing that local government minister Nick Raynsford blames councils for the council tax rises this year.'

So the blame lies with centra l and local government. Another tit-for-tat row is unlikely to convince the public to change its views, because bickering between central and local government is part of the problem.

As Local Government Information Unit director Dennis Reed says: 'Rather than central government point-scoring against local government and vice versa, we have to start talking about what role local government should be playing in society.'

Prof Travers suggests one route to improving the image of local government is to 'master the dark arts of spin' (LGC, 23 May), which perhaps suggests the Local Government Association should employ the services of Peter Mandelson.

The LGA's communications and strategy director Phil Swann has spent the first four months of the year setting up a programme to improve the image of councils, which was unleashed around four weeks ago.

Mr Swann says: 'There are four strands to our image work programme. In conjunction with the Improvement & Development Agency and the Employers' Organisation, we are offering more advice and support to councillors.

'We are also working with the EO, unions and professional societies to promote the value of the local authority workforce to try and equip them to be positive ambassadors. We are also developing a more effective rebuttal system to challenge public preconceptions and we are focusing on the media.'

Negative media portrayal is often cited as an integral reason for the poor image of local government. The Audit Commission report says: 'The public agrees that there is negative coverage of councils in the media, but to a lesser extent than for the police or NHS.' Despite this, the police and NHS are deemed far more trustworthy than councils.

Prof Travers suggests the problem lies in the inability of successive local government associations to master the art of media manipulation.

Too much time is spent trumpeting 'good news' stories such as the mayor's latest outing, which actually propagates an image of the council as parochial and irrelevant .

Money is wasted on free sheets sent to every household, featuring pages of meaningless council 'messages' that could be described as totalitarian if they were not so ineffectual.

Local government is regularly presented with opportunities to promote its image and is almost constantly in the news. But there are just one or two commentators fighting the home front.

This is undoubtedly partly the fault of the media for calling on the same figures again and again.

But the political parties have to share some responsibility - they are often too concerned with pushing their own front-benchers in front of the cameras. Meanwhile some local government luminaries are too shy to take centre stage.

As Prof Travers says: 'All politics is national so local government should be visibly involved in the national part of the debate. What local government needs are one or two full-time articulate and attractive spokespeople.'

London mayor Ken Livingstone and to a lesser extent his Tory rival Stephen Norris are an example of how local government leaders can take to the national arena, often with more impact than national politicians.

Local government has never been threatened with abolition and there is less pressure to change quickly than there is in the private sector. But its autonomy is being eroded and councils must regain credibility if they are to survive.

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