Devo comms – the uncomfortable truths

Devolution, and how local government should communicate it, is still attracting a lot of attention. So what should you do? And how difficult is the task?

Excellent articles by @darrencaveney and @interimboy (£) on the communications challenges facing local government communicators, and by @simonfparker on current progress on devolution, show there are many views on what needs to be done. Having worked on devo communications at both a local and regional level, mine is just another view to add to the debate.

Whether or not you agree with the claimed merits of devolution, it is here to stay. At least for the moment. This issue is the Chancellor’s baby, and it’s unlikely that it will still be such a big deal for local government if he changes jobs any time soon.

There are some uncomfortable realities for communicators, so how should you meet them?

1 Devolution deals are being negotiated by just a few people.

Many commentators have written about the need to engage with residents before signing a devo deal. In reality, this doesn’t happen, nor can it, and is this actually necessary? There is still frustration around the slow pace in agreeing deals, but once central and local government leaders find the common ground they move very quickly, signing deals in a matter of days.

Local government leaders are elected to represent their residents, and in the case of devo we have to trust them to act on our behalf. They should already know what the key issues are in their areas, and where increased local powers could make a positive difference. With this trust comes the expectation that they will only sign deals that will make a positive difference. If they do, then communicators have some positive messages to communicate, but if they sign a weak deal then you’re in trouble.

Be honest about where residents can make a difference, and where they can’t, and let them know. There is nothing worse than a consultation or engagement exercise that is done just for appearance’s sake. Just look at the response rates in some areas. People aren’t stupid, they can tell when they’re being played.

2 Parochialism and trust are not natural bedfellows.

In many cases, but not all, council leaders and chief executives are struggling to balance regional needs against what is best for their local council. This challenge is newer in some regions than in others. It is no accident that the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) is long established, with councils more used to working together than some of their colleagues in other areas. Devolution involves numerous agendas.

Be honest about some areas of disagreement between your councils, this is both human and natural. Listening to leaders and chief executives spouting about how they all get on famously takes insincerity to a new level. Negotiating always involves some pain along the way before agreement is reached, be upfront about it.

3 Metro-mayors are almost inevitable, even though your residents don’t want them.

In virtually ever devolution deal elected mayors have been a deal breaker for the Government. George Osborne has said he’ll settle for nothing less.

So be honest about this, tell your residents that you wouldn’t have got a deal to improve jobs, skills, and transport unless you’d given up your opposition to elected mayors. Let them know about your reservations, whilst at the same time telling them about the greater good and the need to make metro-mayors work.

We know your residents don’t want them. So does the Government, including George Osborne. But he does. And he’s the one with the power to give powers away if you want them, so sometimes you just have to suck it up and get on with it.

4 Devolution is about giving up powers as well as taking them on.

Devolution comes with a contradiction, especially for communicators. Devolving some powers from a national to a regional level means local councils have to cede autonomy to combined authorities or other regional bodies, which isn’t always easy.

Communicators now have to explain to local residents that certain decisions are taken at a regional level and no longer by their own council, which to many will not sound like devolution. So it is vital that the perceived advantages of this new system are communicated clearly and effectively.

5 Resources shouldn’t be an issue.

This may sound like sacrilege in the current climate, but devolution requires communicators to work in a different way. If your council is part of a devo deal then there will be a need to work more closely with neighbouring councils who are also part of the deal. This collaboration has not always been a strength of local government communications, but it needs to be, especially as devolution becomes part of the day job.

Devolution deals will usually involve a combined authority, so your relationship with this body will also be key. If you have a combined authority and several councils who make up its membership, the relationship should be a horizontal one, not top down, with you all combining resources and sharing the load of communicating to residents what devolution will mean for them.

This should be the case irrespective of whether or not your combined authority has its own communications team, and especially so if it does. They are called combined authorities for a reason, you are all on the same side.

Devolution isn’t easy to communicate, especially when the benefits don’t seem clear. But it can be easier if communicators stop fighting some of the uncomfortable truths, and meet them head on.

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