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.


Relevance – Nothing Else Matters


What makes a good communications team? Why are some communicators in your organisation so well respected? Why is your communications function so highly regarded? Or not, as the case may be.

In an increasingly complex world, the answer is a simple one, repeated for good measure.

Relevance. Relevance. Relevance.

Communications is changing. Not just every year, every month, but daily. New digital platforms are commonplace, traditional channels are being dismissed or protected, and everyone is looking for the golden thread that leads to success.

In your organisation, be it private, public, or third sector, how do you know if your communications and marketing team is relevant to your organisation’s needs? And when was the last time you asked yourself this question? This year, a year ago, three years ago? It’s probably less recent than you think.

So what is relevance? For a start, do you have a well researched communications strategy that contributes to your organisation’s overall strategy? If not, why not, and if you have one has it been reviewed and revised recently?

In an ever-changing world a good strategy is only likely to be relevant for a short time as your organisation evolves and responds to many external challenges, so a good strategy also needs to be a flexible one. Or to use another word, relevant.

Darren Caveney’s excellent post on the need for a good communications strategy spells out why having one is essential. There are few who question this, and if they do they are likely to fail the relevance test.

So once you have a communications strategy, which highlights how communications and marketing will contribute to your organisation’s objectives, do you actually put it into practice successfully?

This may seem an obvious question, but many strategies and their spin-off project and campaign plans cease to be relevant if they just sit on a shelf or in an email folder. Do you monitor performance, and ruthlessly review, amend, or abandon certain elements if they are not working?

Do you question what you and your colleagues are doing, and challenge the status quo even if it makes you unpopular, or do you just carry on doing the same thing regardless? If it’s the latter, then you may be failing the relevance test yourself.

If you are managing a team, or part of one, have you objectively analysed whether or not your team members are the right people? Are their skills and attitudes still relevant to what you are trying to achieve?

This is a difficult thing to do, but in my experience there is still a significant number of communicators clinging on to old habits.

At an event a couple of months ago I listened to some people purring at the achievement of placing some well crafted copy in a local newspaper.

There was no thought as to whether or not the article had made any difference, no evidence to show if anyone had taken any substantive action in response, and no reference to what the original purpose of the article was and how it fitted into any communications objective or strategy.

Instead, it was viewed as a success because they thought it was well written, and because it had appeared in the newspaper. At the risk of sounding mean, this is the triumph of professional vanity over relevance, a hark back to the old days when communications success was meaninglessly measured by column inches.

The point is that these are no longer the people your organisation needs. You need generalists, specialists, and in some cases generalist specialists, who know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and whether or not it is working.

They all need to be skilled, adaptable, looking forward, striving for excellence, and achieving success. And relevant.

If your team, function, and the individuals who communicate on your behalf aren’t relevant, then do something about it. Now.

FoI – A Duty Not A Chore


Today’s decision to leave the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act mostly as it is should be welcomed. Perhaps not enthusiastically by some, but the good parts of FoI far outweigh the bad.

Public bodies should be open with the people who fund them, be they individuals, businesses, or the media.

The reasons I’ve seen so far for wanting to change FoI were based on the apparent sensitivity of information or time and cost implications, but there are already rules in place for most of these.  And charging for information about public bodies sets a dangerous precedent.

Some local authorities, and the Local Government Association, have made the case for change, but it’s not been a convincing argument.

Using cost as a reason for change just doesn’t work, after nearly 16 years work on FoI should be an established part of a council’s core business. It is both a small and valuable part of a council’s responsibilities, the public have a right to know.

Work on FoI requests is a joint effort, it doesn’t just belong to communications teams. Legal, finance, and individual service teams all play a key role, as do communications colleagues, and it isn’t difficult to share the load if an effective system is established.

And if there are FoI requests that come up repeatedly, you can save time by uploading these questions and answers on to your website, and simply directing people to them.

As for FoI requests from the media, they provide an opportunity for communications teams to make them less formal and more effective.

Rather than wait up to 20 working days for a response using the formal route, journalists can be given the information more quickly if they can be persuaded to abandon the formal route and change their request to a standard media enquiry, which requires less time and fuss.

And when appropriate, journalists can be given more information than they’ve originally requested to provide background and context to their originally enquiry.

In the run-up to today’s announcements there have been a series of articles making the cases for and against change.

Some, like journalist Ian Burrell in his Independent article have also used the defence of FoI to repeat the usual exaggerated nonsense about all the spin doctors working in council communications teams, conveniently lumping all disciplines together to suit their tired old case.

But others, such as Lord Kerslake, a former council chief executive and head of the civil service, stick to the valid points of why, overall, the FoI Act is good for democracy.

Communications colleagues may find FoI requests irritating at times, but they should embrace them too. As with any relationship there should be give and take on both sides, even if this compromise is sometimes an awkward one.


New year’s resolutions, predictions for 2016


Communicators, their teams, local government, and the public sector are changing. Less money, fewer people, greater uncertainty, and more great work. These are some of the challenges 2016 will bring. So here are ten things that might help.

1 Have an outer body experience. Step outside your team for an hour or so, and coldly evaluate yourself, what you bring to your team, and how you can improve. If your learning points are the same as last year’s, make sure you do something about them.

2 Learn to let go. The tension between wanting to manage and deliver and needing to help others outside your team to do so will become even greater. But let things go, not because you have to, but because you should do.

3 Image is everything. Video and photos are both the future and the present. How your residents consume information is changing, don’t get left behind.

4 Are sacred cows sacred? If you still do media monitoring, just stop. Now. Go on, I dare you. Nobody will die, and after a while nobody will care. Why is this channel more important than all the others?

5 Less is more. Less money, fewer people, but is there less work? Probably not. So something has to give. Now, if not sooner, is the time to think about what you will no longer do. See 4 above.

6 Knowledge is power. Make sure you give yourself time to learn from others. In person, online, wherever is best for you, but make sure you develop. Standing still is not an option.

7 Share the load. If you’re not working effectively with partners, make sure you do. If you think you are, do more. The days of ploughing a lone furrow are long gone. Working together is both better and cheaper.

8 Variety is the spice of life. Austerity shouldn’t limit creativity. Try different things, and don’t worry if some of them don’t work. Perfection is just a myth.

Ok, I know, that’s only eight. See 5. Have a great year.

Devolution and communication – what’s the deal?


What does devolution mean, and what does it mean for communicators?

A couple of weeks ago I had a call from a local government journalist about this, and there was a session on devolution at last week’s Public Sector Communications Academy #CommsAcad.

And this morning BBC News ran a piece which showed that many northerners don’t know what the Northern Powerhouse is. So it’s a fashionable topic, but can it be unpicked?

In terms of what devolution, and devolution deals, will mean, the jury is still out.

Evangelists will tell you that, at long last, power and money are being devolved to the regions and local government. Finally, major local decisions will be made at a local level.

Sceptics will tell you that as the Government gives with one hand it takes with another, and the devil is in the detail. The Spending Review later this month may add or remove confusion, and in 2020 the changes in Business Rates are due to come into play.

We still have a very centralised model of local government. Councils do not have many discretionary powers, funding is at the whim of the national Government, and this is being dramatically reduced. So any change is this dynamic is likely to receive a cautious welcome.

And then there are elected metro-mayors. There has been much talk in the local government world of whether or not they are a good thing?

The reality is that if local government wants devolution deals this debate is largely pointless. Earlier this year George Osborne said of elected mayors: “I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

A masterclass in contradiction, but a clear statement that if local government wants devolution then it will have to have elected mayors.

Most politicians now accept this, but it’s taken some of them far too long to see, read, and absorb the writing on the wall.

The Chancellor may want elected metro-mayors because, as he’s said, he wants a single point of accountability, or it just may be that he and his colleagues are fed up of trying to reach agreement with eight, ten, or twelve council leaders, all with their own local agendas.

Whatever the truth, mayors are now part of the landscape, especially if your local councils have signed up to a devolution deal.

So what of the deals themselves, and what they mean to you as communicators?

As a native of Manchester, a current resident and former local government employee in South Yorkshire, and a former employee and consultant in local government and the combined authority in West Yorkshire, all of whom have deals, I find communications around devolution deals equally interesting and frustrating.

Whilst there are differences between areas, there are many common factors too.

It’s no surprise that residents don’t know much about devolution deals. Most of them are relatively recent, and not much communication has taken place. But what do residents want to know?

They’ll want to know what will mean for them, both as individuals and in their local area. This morning’s news report backed this up, with interviewees saying they’d heard of the Northern Powerhouse but they wanted to know what it would mean for them personally.

As a resident of the South Yorkshire City Region, whose combined authority has signed a deal currently worth £30million a year for 30 years, this is what I want to know too.

What have my leaders signed up to, and what will it mean for me and everyone else? I do not want or need to know much about governance structures, at least not until I get a chance to vote in two years time, so keep that bit short.

There’ll be plenty of time for that in future, just as there is for local luminaries past and present to start coming out of the woodwork to position themselves for forthcoming elections. It’s already started, just keep an eye out in your local area.

What I want to know about now is what the deal will mean for transport, skills, and jobs, and when? And I want to know in simple language.

If the deal if going to mean more jobs, then what kind of jobs, where will they be, and how do people get one?

If buses and trains are going to be better, then please break these improvements down to local neighbourhoods. The message has to be relevant to people’s everyday lives.

And if skills training is to improve, then in what, and where do people go to access it?

Please communicate with us about the future, and not the frustration of the negotiations of the past couple of years.

And please be honest about what is communication, and what is consultation. Do not dress the former up as the latter, it’s the cardinal sin. In South Yorkshire they’ve described their deal as subject to government legislation, which it is, and also to public consultation.

I’m confused as to what they’re going to consult about, as they’ve already signed the deal. Isn’t that what elected politicians are supposed to do, negotiate things on our behalf. We don’t need a referendum on everything.

And are they really going to change anything on the basis of the limited public response?

If the answer to this question is no, then please just communicate with me and others and call it that, as calling it consultation would be disingenuous.

In terms of how devolution is communicated, there is a contradiction. Devolution itself should transfer some decision making from a national to a smaller local level, but for local government communicators this creates the need to work more effectively together at a larger regional level.

There may be good examples in some parts of the country, but in the main neighbouring communications teams working well together isn’t one of local government’s strengths. Nor is working with communications teams in the combined authority or local enterprise partnerships.

Where it doesn’t currently work well, this needs to change, and quickly. There need to be regional messages and these also need to be broken down so that they are relevant to each locality. Regional and local communications teams are already well placed to do this.

So the structure and resources already exist, and now it’s time to work together and pool resources effectively.

But please make sure the messages are the ones people want to hear, and not the ones some of you think they ought to know.

Future-proofing your communications team


Yesterday I was lucky enough to lead a workshop at #CommsAcad in Coventry, where local government and other public sector communicators had just finished the second of their three-day academy, sharing learning and ideas.

The workshop on future-proofing was one of five that formed part of a session on ‘Communicating in a digital world’, led by @darrencaveney and @danslee from @comms2point0.

The idea of the workshop was to look at how communications teams and communicators need to change over the next few years to adapt to the ever-changing world.

In the current climate communications teams are likely to get smaller, so what do they need to do to survive and thrive?

Forty people squashed into a small room to share issues and ideas on a topic that will probably be a source of debate for years to come. The short session did not come up with all the solutions, in fact there were more questions than answers, but here’s a flavour of some of the points discussed in the group and sub-groups.

Generalists v Specialists – will communicators all have to be generalists, or is there still room for specialists? Reduced funding and a greater range of tools at our disposal may necessitate this change, but could this mean communicators risk becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none?

Interestingly, 37 people regarded themselves as generalists, with only three describing themselves as specialists, all of whom worked in media relations.

Politicians v Residents – how do we reconcile what some politicians and senior officers want to communicate with what residents and communications teams want? These are often different things, but one group has the power of veto. Although it seems logical to concentrate on the channels most popular with residents, this isn’t always possible.

Traditional media isn’t dead – in spite of what some people might think, traditional channels are still alive. For example, readership of newspapers is going down but they still play a significant role.

Digital is important, but is there is a risk that an ’emperor’s new clothes’ factor is overplaying its importance? At the same time, there are still some people, including elected members, who are not engaging with digital channels.

In theory it should be easy to convince them of the merits of digital, but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what makes ‘good digital’.

How do we prove our worth? – this is a tricky one, and yet this will become more important as times goes on. Do we measure impact, outputs, or outcomes, and which of these matter most?

Should communications teams have measures purely of their own work, or how their work contributes to wider council priorities and resident needs?

This is only a short summary of some of the issues raised, and I hope those who were there, others attending #CommsAcad, and anyone else interested will offer your views too, so over to you.

For my part, the big issues for me are Generalists v Specialists and how teams and individuals prove their worth.

Communications teams continually need to adapt to thrive, and this is more acute than ever. I think time is running out for people to have highly specialised roles, and that we’re moving toward more generic roles with communicators carrying out a wider range of functions.

I think person specifications and the type of people who make up teams will become more important than job descriptions. I blogged about this a few weeks ago so I won’t go over old ground, but the next inevitable restructure will be more important than ever.

In terms of proving our worth, I think there is still a long way to go, which concerns me. There has been a great deal of good work on evaluation, but the picture across the country still seems blurred.

There stills seems to be a stubborn refusal in some parts to let go of measuring local outputs by communications teams. Why do we still count news releases, and why in a multi-channel world do some teams still devote resources to media monitoring but don’t give the same attention to other channels?

And do these measures mean anything? Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on council and community outcomes that communications activities contribute to eg the number of new foster parents recruited and allocated?

This seems both more meaningful and also shows how the communications team contributes to the council and community as a whole. Teams should not present themselves in isolation, they should be an integral part of the organisation.

The debate on future-proofing is in its infancy, and there are no easy answers. But we need to find them, so watch this space.


Is the communications specialist dead?


Today’s excellent Twitter chat, hosted by @comms2point0 and @bencapper looked at the #idealcommsteam and got me thinking.

In the current financial climate, can communications teams still afford specialists, or is generalism the new specialism?

In his excellent blog post, @bencapper highlighted the challenges he faces in putting together a small team from scratch. Ben looked at what roles he would want in his team, and how difficult it is to make these decisions.

In taking a zero based approach, which I blogged about earlier this year, it is hard to find the right balance between the skills of individuals and overall requirements of the team. But have we reached the point where everyone now needs to be able to do everything?

They may do it in very different ways, and be permitted and encouraged to do so, but should Heads/Directors of Communications be able to call upon any member of their shrinking teams to carry out any particular activity?

Darren Caveney’s blog on his experience over 10 years as a Head of Communications highlighted the versatility and resilience required for this role, but should these requirements permeate throughout the team?

In my own experience leading communications teams, people have usually joined with a specialism. In the past these have included media relations, marketing, web, and internal communications, and they have been joined in recent years by insight and social media, to name a few.

Even team members who have studied communications in academia have tended to move from a general perspective to a particular specialism. Why? Numerous people have spoken and written about the need for social media skills to be generic, so why doesn’t this apply to other specialisms too? Digital and traditional should be essential tools for all communicators.

Have we now reached the stage where communications teams just need two job descriptions, one for a leader and one for everyone else? And how different should they be?

In today’s climate, especially in the public sector, the nature of the team members themselves is becoming increasingly important. So the person specification is superseding the job description.

This doesn’t mean that experience isn’t important, it is. But only if it’s meaningful and successful, and only if the individual(s) concerned showcased the talent they possess.

Talent should trump experience, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But let’s make the former an essential requirement, and the latter a nice add-on.