Last month marked the start of a new era in local public service inspection in the UK.
OK, so that’s not the most exciting of first lines to a blog post I’ve ever thought up, but things are changing and communicators in local public service organisations like councils, primary care trusts and the police need to understand a bit about what it means for them.
I should probably add a bit of a health warning here: I’m not an expert in the business of public service inspection regimes, but, just like fellow communicators, I’m starting to get my head around comprehensive area assessment (CAA) and what it means for communicating in the local public sector.
There are two parts to CAA: the area assessment (essentially the difference public services make to people living in a particular place) and the organisational assessment (where the organisation is inspected on how it’s performing).
The idea is that the assessments focus on outcomes, rather than outputs – looking at what difference a particular public sector activity makes rather than the fact the activity itself takes place.
Of course there’s much, much more detail that will become more familiar over time to those working in the local public services.
So what does it mean for communicators?
I think CAA will further the drive to more co-ordinated local public service communications in a particular place – something local area agreements and the place shaping agenda have already kicked off. Public service communications need to be better co-ordinated in terms of timings and messages, but there’s also a role for shared intelligence in communications – helping ensure that communications are targetted at appropriate audiences in a specific place.
The area assessment part of CAA will also force council and other local public service communications to become more strategic – public service will be measured, in part, on perception of aspects of life in a place – so it’s not enough to just tell residents the council provides a particular service anymore – it’s about the difference that service makes to someone living in the particular place.
And I think that means an increased focus on relevance to place in communications – shifting away from a broadcast, one-size-fits-all message approach, to communicating with communities in smaller-sized segments about messages more relevant to people in that locality.
I think it also demands different skills from local government communicators – I can see the traditional silos of media relations, marketing and consultation officers being eroded as the skills required to deliver effective local government communications in the age of CAA change.
That shift in skills required is on top of the one that’s already under way as local government communicators adjust to the impact of social media on the business of communicating – the CAA documentation does make some explicit references to digital communications, but there are a good deal more implied references in there too.
I’ve spent almost five years in the public sector now, and one of the real challenges still is managing the complexity of the public sector communications environment – the heady mix of customers, politicians, politics and inspectors means local public service communicators have plenty of interesting times in the coming months and years.