Local government faces greater scrutiny than ever before and
communications departments must do everything they can to maximise their
ability to keep residents informed.
Local government press departments now face greater scrutiny than
ever as they attempt to ensure residents are well-informed about the
effects of recently announced cuts with reduced resources and personnel.
With experts predicting that council comms teams could be slashed by a third
over the next three years while facing ever bigger challenges, they
need to do something different in order to show their value.
teams know that they have a vital role to play in explaining what
councils are doing in terms of delivering efficiencies and making
changes to services as well as involving residents in decision making.
"Our role is to put a local context around the national picture" said
Simon Jones, head of communications for Hammersmith and Fulham borough council.
"People understand that council's face tough spending decisions, but we
need to be clear about what exactly this means locally and what the
priorities are in moving forward."
The last thing that council
comms teams need is residents thinking that they are a waste of money so
they need to adapt their current strategy to make it clear they're
providing better value for money than ever before. To that end, North Lincolnshire council and Tower Hamlets council recently announced plans to cut their printed publications after Eric Pickles launched an attack on council freesheets and newsletters and their cost to citizens.
is a danger that local government communications teams could be seen as
a luxury so it us up to us to prove our worth" said David Holdstock,
head of corporate communications at Hillingdon council and chair of LG Communications,
an association of council authority members that works to drive
excellence in local government communications, "public sector
communicators have to deliver efficient, cost-effective communications
in a way that is appropriate for their residents."
Proving your worth
how do communications managers go about doing this and, more
importantly, making the most of their limited resources? The recent Local by Social online conference
brought together 1,100 experts from 193 councils across the UK to
discuss this issue, and the potential social media and open data had to
solve the problem.
What came out of the conference was a feeling
that social media could be an excellent way of forging a relationship
with residents, whilst doing away with the overheads that come with
assembling printed publications. Many councils already have Twitter,
YouTube and Facebook (a study by Socitm reported in February this year
that 154 have Twitter and 78 Facebook pages)
but few use them as effectively as they should, too often using them to
"push out" information rather than participate in the conversation or
responding to feedback about council services.
doesn't necessarily mean that councils have to create fancy Facebook
pages that nobody will read" said Jones, whose council team won a local
government reputation award for value for money in 2009. "We need to
better understand how our audiences are already engaging using social
media and engage on their terms, not ours."
Social media success
not an enviable task but some council's have proven it is possible to
engage with residents. One example of a successful social media project
is Shape Your Place, a
website set up by Cambridgeshire county council to improve community
cohesion with the Fenland town of Wisbech and the surrounding area. The
site, developed in 2009, allows residents to raise issues which a member
of the local council, police or fire service will respond to within 10
days. "In essence it's another tool or channel to help determine local
priorities and encourage actions to address those priorities." said
Michelle Ide-Smith, the council's web strategy manager who set up the
site, on the Local by Social forum.
But, whilst social media like
Twitter and projects like Shape Your Place are a valuable resource, its
impact should not be over-estimated. "We use social media a lot with our
young people" said Steve Beynon, chief executive for the Isle of Wight Council,
"but a recent survey showed that the majority of our residents do not
habitually use it. We must target our resources to serve media that is
known to be widely used and trusted rather than the media that is simply
Another way to
connect with residents is open data resources, where sets of information
are made freely accessible for residents to access at their own
leisure. Although the extent to which councils have used open data so
far is varied, there are examples where councils have had success. Kent county council's Pic and Mix project
has proven to be a good example of a "mash-up" open data source,
whereby users can access web-based information to their own ends and
create data that is most relevant to them.
"I think that
transparency will help to capture the imagination of some residents who
may not have previously engaged with local government" said Holdstock,
whose council, Hillingdon, already have a healthy data store complete
with up-to-date information on council expenditure and the whereabouts
of CCTV cameras. "It also demonstrates a commitment to transparency and
shown how we are spending taxpayer's money." Once a provision has been
put in place to make data comparable across councils, the possibilities
for transparency are unparalleled.
Engaging citizens could be the
push that local authorities need to embrace social media. If
communications teams can show both financial and social value then the
rest of local government will just to have to accept that they're moving
into the 21st century. Like it, or not.