Cuts and the public mood

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Like many public sector communicators I’m spending a lot of my waking hours (and a few non-waking hours too) thinking about cuts.

Mainly considering how to communicate difficult messages to customers, colleagues and other people who need to know about what’s happening and why, as well as spending the odd minute or two wondering if I might be one of them.

One of the things that communicators need to factor into their thinking is the attitude of their intended audiences to what’s happening. For local public service communicators the national context is really important. And is possibly the most rapidly evolving context in my time in public sector communications.

Since the election campaign, the formation of the coalition, numerous central government announcements through to the emergency budget in June, the national media agenda has been driven by the need to cut public spending, the depth of the cuts and where they should fall.

I’ve been keeping a look out for evidence that helps communicators understand more about people’s attitudes towards reductions in public sector spending, job cuts and most importantly the services to the public that are affected.

So here’s a selection of what I’ve found so far…

The shift in public opinion about how quickly to cut the deficit continues. The public now seem to accept the government’s stance that cutting the deficit needs to begin immediately. In March, over half said the national debt should not be cut this year as it may stop the recovery – just a third (35%) say the same now….Perhaps unsurprisingly, those of lowest social grades (DEs) are most negative about the Budget. They are most likely to think Budget is bad for them personally (56%) and for the country (41%), as well as being most likely to oppose the rise in VAT (67%) and most likely to oppose raising pension age (60%). Among this group there is also higher opposition to cutting housing benefit (43%).
Ipsos MORI/ The Economist – 2 July 2010

Consultation of public sector workers will have little or no influence on the decisions the government takes on cuts, in the view of the vast majority of voters.
PoliticsHome –  25-28 June

Just over half (51%) of Brits feel prepared for the spending cuts ahead, although this approval comes before specific cuts have been outlined. And while most feel prepared, a significant proportion (42%) feels ‘unprepared’ for a change in lifestyle as a result of cuts….In general, most (55%) support the Government’s proposed cuts to public spending.
You Gov/The Sun – 8 June 2010

Many of the government’s proposals for reducing the deficit are proving popular with the public…notions of fairness and providing a safety net are core to the public’s understanding of public services. Most people feel that government and public services have tried to do too much in recent years and that people should take more responsibility for their own lives (64%).  Local control is cautiously welcomed, but concerns about variation in services dominate. For example, more people think that standards of service should be the same everywhere for health services (81%) and even relatively straightforward services such as recycling (70%). Most of the public say they do not want to be actively involved in how public services are run – but there are still significant minorities who say they do, which represents millions of people across the country as a whole. Further, it is likely that those who are directly affected will be more likely to get involved; for example, parents are far more likely to want to have more of a say in how Primary Schools work than people without children.
Ipsos MORI / The Economist – 28 May 2010


Updated 5 July 2010
:

62 per cent of people would prefer local councillors to make decisions about public spending in their local area…Taxpayers also think NHS managers, quangos and overseas aid are the top three areas where cuts should be made to save money…Just one per cent respectively thought street cleaning, care for the elderly by social services and rubbish collections should be cut to save public money…The services people regard as being frontline are: police (84 per cent), fire service (81 per cent), doctors, nurses and other hospital staff (80 per cent), schools (59 per cent), care for the elderly by social services (49 per cent), rubbish collection (44 per cent), help for disabled people by social services (43 per cent), child protection (40 per cent)…The survey also shows that almost three quarters of people (74 per cent) believe frontline services will be hit by cuts.
ComRes/LGA – 5 July 2010

My reading of the situation in broad terms from the evidence is that there is a growing and substantial acceptance of the need for cuts – driven by messaging and actions at a national level. But I don’t think that has yet been widely linked to services stopping or changing at a local level – and it’s the understanding and acceptance of this that is crucial for public sector communicators that are trying to keep residents informed at this challenging time.

However things are moving fast, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for more evidence that might point to the communications impact of public sector spending cuts being felt a the local level.

Feel free to add any more links to relevant research/evidence in the comments below.

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