I’ve spent the day in Leeds attending a day of the LGcommunications annual conference. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a communications conference and it was certainly interesting spending a day in the company of fellow local public service communicators, as well as speaking on a panel session in the afternoon.
The first session I caught was a discussion about total place, communications and what the new coalition government means for all this. There was general agreement that the concept of total place – a way of looking at all public money flowing through a place regardless of who provides the service – was something that was here to stay, although possibly under a different moniker.
There won’t be any prizes for guessing the other certainty of the session – the need for a reduction in public spending generally and what it means for local public service communicators. There’s a need to continue the drive to make communications spend, whether on people, channels or campaigns, more accountable and linked to outcomes (or to avoid the jargon, things that actually make a difference to the lives of local people). There was a good discussion about how this could be done and different approaches that could be taken.
There was also a debate about how joined up communications functions between local public service providers could become a reality. One view was that creating a single communications team for a place, covering the remits of council, PCT, police and others, was just the kind of visionary thinking that the current times demand. Idealistically I can see the appeal of this logic – an area’s sustainable communities strategy is the blueprint for what every public service partner should be doing in an area – and this should therefore where the outcomes for an area are set out and those are what communicators should be supporting. Job done.
However the creation of such a team has its challenges – the need for each organisation to give up some of its more organisationally focussed goals would require a real change in thinking for many organisations, especially those with politics at their core. I think there’s a real risk also that a shared communication resource between partners would become a lightning conductor during times of conflict between those partners – if a shared communications function is to become a reality this kind of eventuality will need considering and approaches agreeing before it happens.
Others in the audience could see other solutions to removing overlap in communications functions in local areas – one suggestion that sounded interesting was organisations in a local area taking a lead on different parts of communications – for example one organisation may host a media team while another may lead on graphic design. Again with this I can see challenges, particularly on the practical side, but I wouldn’t dismiss any options at this stage.
What’s very clear is that we need to take a wide ranging look at what communications contributes to local public service organisations, ensure that contribution is aligned to what the organisation actually wants, and think radically about different models for delivery that can increase efficiency yet further.
Alex Aiken’s workshop on Westminster‘s latest thinking on their approach to communications was also very useful – giving me plenty to think about and challenging once again some of the comfortable norms of communications thinking.
The other session that was really useful was from Prof Stephen Coleman who spoke about changes in politics, society and the internet. He challenged public sector communicators to think about how they needed to recast the public engagement agenda that’s needed in the new mode of technologically enabled politics and in the era of an unprecedented public mood towards politics. He had three challenges for the future:
- Where do people find information – much council information is not demand-driven – organisations need to push information to people but this is a greater challenge in times when people have so many competing demands for their attention
- The exclusive narrative of public sector communications – many communications “talk” in words or terms that people just don’t understand (and shouldn’t have to understand). Communications need to be framed in a narrative that people can related to – and in the conversations of social media we have a great window into those real-world narratives. We need to learn how to interpret them and fit our communications into those narratives.
- The challenge of efficacy – the best single predictor of successful engagement is people’s belief in their ability to influence the world around them. As a belief it’s an entirely subjective measure but is really important – if people think they can make a difference, they will participate, and if they think they can’t make a difference, they won’t.
And then Stephen closed with three areas for delegates to take away and put into action:
- mapping – taking a “from the bottom up” approach to how and what to communicate – rather than building from the current practice – because incremental, creeping growth of a communications landscape will invariably lead to less effective practice than a clean-sheet approach
- storying – thinking about how communicators can take the day-to-day life narratives of real people, which are far more influential than council or council people’s narratives, and using them in communications. The next level would then be to connect these narratives together to tell a story of place grounded in people, rather than the physical aspects of place which form many existing communications.
- production of meaningful, tangible consequences to feedback – or put simply, we need to be able to tell people what we’ve done with things they’ve told us. From Stephen’s research the lack of this is one of the biggest frustrations among audiences that have participated in public sector research or consultation. Making these links is key to sustaining and developing a culture of participation and engagement.
Having left home at 4.30am this morning and expecting to get back at 10pm it’s been a long day, but very worthwhile. I’ve certainly got a lot to think about putting into practice, and I might even manage a few blog posts on some aspects of it – after this is meant to be a blog about public sector communications after all!