Communicating in local government has never been more important – before the pandemic there might have been a host of reasons that would have led me to say the same thing but now there are a whole new set of reasons.
The world is a different place compared to just a year ago, and at that time we were coming out the other end of an extraordinary and febrile time in national politics because of Brexit, not to mention getting our heads around the concept of seismic policy shifts in responding to the climate change movement gathering momentum. Local government has found itself at the intersection of these shifting tectonic forces that shook the ground beneath our feet. And at the cutting edge, as always even if it’s not always recognised, is the need for quality communications. It’s the oil in the mechanism that makes the art of the possible, possible.
As a council leader I’ve been reflecting on communications in local government as the catalyst for change, going well beyond the well-rehearsed communicator of the day-to-day bread and butter of what we do as local authorities. For me it’s the positive feedback loop that reflects back the pace, nature and requirement for change or the need to react to immediate critical change (a pandemic for instance) locally. Communications is the critical interface with our residents and staff that makes change effective and responsive – imperatives in local government. It was perhaps why it was one of the first things we undertook to review when we took control of Derbyshire CC in 2017.
It proved one of the most critical things we did in the nearly four years since we got there. Many councillors and residents look at communications as the expendable and sacrificial lamb to be thrown upon the altar of gesture cuts and in so doing they slice off their own noses. In an age of mass communications, information bombardment, fake news and the 24/7 capability to be hooked into social media, throwing comms into the least important corner of the room is fatal.
With the blessing of my fellow Cabinet and council members we took the perhaps somewhat unexpected approach of not just retaining a strong communications function but to invest in it.
We viewed communications as a critical component of how the council functioned yet we recognised that it needed to be lithe, nimble, cost effective and deliver many more bangs to the buck. It needed a business-like plug-in to every area of council business and a service that did not measure its productivity in wordy press releases or publishing endless leaflets for various obscure initiatives that mostly sat on shelves in even more obscure offices around our council buildings.
We’ve come a long way since then and our comms team has been tested time and again in extraordinary ways. Derbyshire has been on the frontline of climate change in Britain; starting in August 2019 with the infamous Toddbrook Dam incident in Whaley Bridge in High Peak, where record rainfall rapidly degraded the integrity of the dam structure and threatened the town with being washed away.
Of course COVID-19 has been a lens through which our work with colleagues in health, the wider social care sector and CCGs have been tested, strengthened and sometimes tested again as we grapple with major issues around shielding the vulnerable and elderly care in a pandemic.
New variants of COVID-19, their increased infectivity and potential ongoing community spread, coupled with a potential increase in virulence and hospitalisations will bring further challenges. Clear messaging to prevent infection on an increasingly lockdown weary public buoyed with hope about vaccines is needed to deal with the first part of this issue and managing the challenges potentially presented by the latter. This will take strong comms teams with clear focus and leadership.
In the future, COVID-19, the climate change agenda and the need to solve the social care conundrum are the immovable objects around which the steel bar that is the future of local government, our communities and local economies will be bent. Quality and fit-for-purpose communications is the fulcrum that will bring along the public and local authority workforces. So, as we wrestle with the many and varied complexities present by the ‘now,’ we must always be looking ahead at what needs to be done next. Asking questions about how we recover from the impacts on the economy presented by this pandemic, how do we revitalise high streets, tourism and the hospitality sectors and how do we weave good, clean growth into that new future and what role will communications play in that. Because that future will be a journey with many complexities to deal with en route.
There is a big job for the government and local authorities to do and ultimately this will require well communicated clear political leadership, bolstered by solid teamwork and skilled communications capacity based upon a clear vision and strategy for the future of local government in uncertain times. The time for that recognition, and for communicating it, is now.
Barry Lewis is leader of Derbyshire CC
- Cllr Barry Lewis is chairing a series of roundtable discussion with council leaders and Cabinet members on future priorities for local government communications with Westco. For details go here