In this week’s email interview Andy Sawford, chief executive at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), gives us a really interesting perspective on some of the big issues facing local government today.
Andy joined the LGiU in March 2008 having previosuly worked in parliament, at the LGA, and from 2004 as a policy and public affairs consultant for local authorities and organisations such as the National Association of Local Councils and the Association of Police Authorities.
You’re Chief Executive at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) – what does LGiU do and why is it important to local government?
The LGiU is the leading national thinktank on local public services and local democracy, working through our Centre for Local Sustainability, Centre for Children’s Services, Centre for Service Transformation and Centre for Local Democracy.
We believe that democracy strengthens communities and improves services so that they better meet local needs and aspirations. Working with our network of 40,000 councillors, council officers, and others involved in local public services, we provide policy information and share good practice, develop new policy ideas, and contribute to the national policy debate.
Our activities include organising over 100 events each year, publishing Cllr Magazine which is sent to 10,000 councillors, advising the All Party Local Government Group, and running major national networks such as the Childrens Services Network, our Local Economies Network and Carbon Trading Councils.
In July 2008 we were voted ‘Thinktank of the Year’ in the national policy and public affairs awards.
Can you tell us a bit more about your career before you joined LGiU?
I joined the LGiU in March 2008 as Chief Executive. My previous experience includes working in parliament and at the LGA and from 2004 as a policy and public affairs consultant for numerous local authorities and organisations such as the National Association of Local Councils and the Association of Police Authorities.
In 2005 I led the establishment of the All Party Parliamentary Local Government Group to promote improved dialogue between local and national politicians, and make an impact in debates on key issues, such as the group’s major inquiries on the role of councillors (2007), the future of older people’s services (2008) and the current inquiry on localising criminal justice.
What’s the biggest challenge facing local government in the UK right now?
That’s a big question. Local councils right now are trying to keep all the balls in the air in terms of delivering good local public services, whilst also focusing on what they can do to support their communities through the recession.
Part of the work councils are doing in relation to the recession is making sure they are delivering good value, and getting to grips with the financial squeeze that is already biting, and that will have a major impact over the next decade.
And what does that mean for council communicators?
You have to keep doing what you’ve always done but do it better within ever tighter resources, which means finding new ways of doing things.
An example is how some councils, like Essex and Westminster CC are providing their comms services to other councils in a way that helps the client council, supports the overall improvement and reputation of local government and generates income and develops the capacity of the provider council.
Another major development, which you are leading the field in Simon, is around social networking and how you harness that. I am a big fan of Twitter and invite anyone reading this to follow my regular updates there.
On the economy specifically, it is important for comms teams to be tuned in to how the council and your elected members are trying to support the community and make sure you effectively get the message out, particularly if it is a new service, or where timing is key.
A good example is the investment that councils are making in credit unions, to help people manage their finances, and crucially to stop the loan sharks. It is a great idea but to be successful it needs effective communications so that people know what help is available. In this case you need to get a message across particularly to the more vulnerable, and perhaps harder to reach members of your communities, and you really need to work with the credit unions and local voluntary organisations, community and religious groups.
Genuinely empowering residents at a time when people are less concerned than ever with local democracy is a challenge. What do councils need to do to better engage citizens in policy development and effective service delivery?
I don’t accept the premise that people are less concerned with local democracy because as councils are getting more ambitious and starting to innovate around the role that they play, such as Essex’s work on post offices, people are going to take more interest.
We’ve seen people, both at a local level and the national political parties, looking to local democracy as one of the ways forward from the current political malaise around the MPs expenses scandals. Whitehall has to get over the fear of the postcode lottery and accept that local diversity in service provision exists already and that it can be a very positive thing if the diversity reflects local needs and the choices that people make.
I want to see us moving towards a new approach where local people, with and through their elected representatives, get much more say over how local services, particularly policing and healthcare, are run, rather than the situation now where Whitehall is in charge to a large extent.
As we move to give people more say, and I’m not talking about ‘consultation’ which unfortunately has become a bit discredited, we need to find new ways of giving people the information and the appropriate opportunities in the decision making process, to register their views.
It isn’t right to be prescriptive about how you do this in terms of what combination of ideas such as Citizen’s Panels, petitions, public meetings, Councillor surgeries, social networking, referendums, works best because I have seen good and bad examples of all these techniques.
One thing that you have to be consistent about though is making sure that elected members are central to your approach to getting the public engaged.
Comprehensive Area Assessments (CAA) mean councils need to work even more closely with local public sector partners. Where has this made a difference to the way local public sector organisations deliver communications?
In the area I live I don’t see a lot of evidence of effective ‘joined up’ communications from the various local public sector organisations. CAA is being driven by strategic and senior connections in the public sector organisations and the collaboration between teams of staff in those organisations is going to follow on, particularly where there is a clear benefit to this in delivering services.
The rationale for more effective collaboration in comms is clear but it will mean setting aside some of the normal rules of engagement, such as the drive to get maximum recognition and credit for your organisation, particularly for councils where there is a political element to this.
What advice would you give a young communicator thinking about working in the local public sector?
Do it. Public sector comms is going to have to keep innovating and new people coming in should have lots of scope and lots of fun. It depends of course what kind of person you are and what motivates you, but I say to my team all the time that we are there to change the world. There should be a feelgood element to working in the public sector because you are trying to help improve your community and improve people’s lives.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There is a major comms implication from the government’s new legislating putting on councils a “Duty to promote democracy” and a “Duty to involve”.
Whilst I don’t think this kind of legislation is really necessary, of course it is right that councils inform and involve the public in the process of democracy. What I would particularly urge public sector comms to do is make sure you put the politicians and those in a governance role in organisations such as police authorites and PCTs to the fore in your communications, to increase the connection between the public and local decision makers.