News and Comment

It’s good to see councils behaving a little less modestly

Thursday 4 October 2012

Within the culture of local government, self-promotion is a bit of an alien concept. As the chair of the LGA Peter Fleming said recently “it isn’t in the nature of public service to shout about what you do”. Whilst this modesty may be admirable, there is a growing acceptance that in order to reach their residents, councils need to do more in the ‘trumpeting of their achievements’ department. And, as new research suggests, there’s plenty for local authorities to be shouting about at the moment.

Writing in The Guardian last week, Fleming was not praising the modesty of council staff with his observation, but in fact launching #OurDay – an LGA inspired scheme in which council workers were encouraged to regularly tweet updates of their working day with the intention of raising awareness of what local authorities do. As he put it: “letting residents know how their money is being spent and alert them to the services that are available to them”. #OurDay was an unmitigated success – over 10,000 tweets were sent from close to 4,000 twitter accounts reaching an estimated 768,277 people.

The #OurDay campaign happened to coincide with the publication of new research that illustrated one area in which many councils have much to be proud of. In their Leading the Way on Fair Pay report, think-tank One Society look at the issue of public sector pay, pointing to evidence that local authorities are actually doing more than is popularly thought to reduce pay at the top, whilst increasing wages for those at the bottom. One Society noted that despite serious budget constraints, 20 percent of the 174 local authorities surveyed had committed to paying their staff the Living Wage, with a further 8 percent considering the proposal. At the same time, over 10 percent of local authorities have taken clear steps to responsibly reduce pay for chief executives in these challenged times.

The subject of council Chief Executive pay is one that OPM has recently touched on in a BBC radio debate and latterly on our blog. From out perspective, the issue of how much a Chief Executive earns is of secondary importance to whether or not a Chief Exec’s performance warrants their salary. As my colleague Phil Copestake said to the BBC Tees, the public don’t really have an idea of what a Chief Executive does all day to justify their, in some instances, considerable wages. And why would they? It shouldn’t be the job of the public to find out what their local authority does, it is the job of the local authority to inform their constituents of the services available to them.

What’s really encouraging is that there is plenty of evidence that local authorities are increasingly aware of this requirement and they are starting to do more to fulfill it. Participating in surveys like One Society’s for instance, gives local authorities a chance to challenge misleading and misrepresentative stereotypes like “town hall fat cats”. Even better, social media campaigns like #OurDay allow councils to directly engage with the communities they serve, demystifying the question of what, on a day-to-day basis, they actually do.

As anyone who has ever worked in, or with, a local authority will testify – the services councils provide for their communities are invaluable. From social work, to housing, transport to education the list goes on. But as Peter Fleming said: “a relatively common misconception of local government is that the main thing we do is pick up the bins”. In order to correct this misconception it falls on the shoulders of local government to add yet another service to their catalogue: communicating their worth.