LISTEN BETTER: Why the Tyranny of Public Notices Should End – and What To Do About It

6548458467_5888953d4f_oIt’s an obscenity that even as libraries close and care is cut that there is a £67.85 million back-door subsidy paid by local government to newspapers.

A what? And how much?

This is the true cost of councils being forced by law to pay over-the-odds for public notices tucked away in the back of printed newspapers being read by fewer and fewer people.

It is a throwback, a misguided sweetener to the newspaper industry and comes from the days when the local paper was the only show in town.

What are public notices? They’re announcements of where double yellow lines are to be painted, who has applied for a taxi licence and an application from a pub licensee for a late night opening licence. It is the bread and butter of a community.

Should they be communicated and publicised? Absolutely.

Can it be done without swingeing annual charges? Yes.

Being forced over a barrel to pay to communicate through local newspapers is the last throwback to a world before the internet.

It is wrong.

It flies in the face of government policy.

It is print-by-default in a digital-by-default world.

It must stop.

This is why and here is how we can do it.

The Government department in charge of local government has asked for ‘councils, newspapers and others’ to take a new look at how public notices are distributed. Any solution is dead in the water unless councils are stopped being made to pay for expensive print notices – or even pay for digital ones.

Really? Councils have to communicate like this?

Yes. Bonkers, isn’t it? There is a raft of legislation that mean that councils must take out newspaper ads before they take certain decisions. The aim is to publicise and encourage people to come forward with comment and opinion. Getting people involved is absolutely a good thing. The more people are informed and take part in the decision making process the better.

Her Majesty’s Government’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher has written eloquently about this being the digital century. I’d agree with that. In the digital century people find out about what is happening through networks and the web. Not through small ads. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time you bought a local newspaper? When was the last public notice you read? And can you remember what it was about?

What is the state of local government?

In short, perilous. Every penny counts and in Town Halls up and down the land small sums of money and budget decisions are being argued about. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts 1.1 million job losses by 2019 across the public sector. Birmingham City Council Leader Albert Bore has talked of the ‘end of local government as we know it.’ Government funding cuts to local government are touching 40 per cent and spending power is falling by 25 per cent according to a critical National Audit Office report which observes that the Department for Communities and Local Government doesn’t understand the impact of cuts.

In other words, cuts are being made and every penny counts. Which is why being forced to spend on newspaper ads is wrong.

But how much do the public notices cost?

Think tank Local Government Information Unit – LGiU – calculated that in 2012 public notices in newspapers were costing £67.85 million. Public Notices: The Case for Radical Reform: Part One’ shows that this is on average £181,000 per authority. In some cases, the report says, public notices incurred a rate three times as expensive as normal display ads and reaching over £20 per column centimetre in some publications.

“This is a lot of money, especially when councils are trying desperately to !nd savings. It is also an outdated system that has been left behind by technological advances. The current system provides no feedback to councils and ignores the fact that the audience is moving away from printed newspapers, to a varied digital media landscape.

“LGiU believes change is necessary in the following areas: councils should be free to decide where is best to place public notices, more work needs to be done to de-jargon and standardise the content of public notices,  councils who do publish notices online should o”er users an email subscription service, allowing users to opt-in to receive public notices, hyperlocal, neighbourhood websites, as well as traditional local media news sites, should be encouraged to carry feeds of council notices the government should look into the possibility of supporting the development of a central online portal for publishing public notices.

  • Public Notices: The Case for Radical Reform: Part One. LGiU.

 

But who reads newspapers these days?

Some people do. Ofcom in their annual Communications Market Report says that adults in the UK spend 15 minutes a day reading newspapers or looking at newspaper sites. For some people, they keep them informed. But these figures are dropping.

In comparison, adults spend 36 minutes on websites or apps and 26 minutes on social media. The breakdown is here.

In Walsall, where I worked in local government communications, the local paper the Express & Star in 2013 sold around 10,000 copies of the Walsall edition in a borough of more than 269,323 people. The newspaper industry says that between two and five people read each paid-for copy. For the sake of argument, if that was three people per copy that means 11 per cent of Walsall get to see the public notice. That’s if everyone reads the paper from cover-to-cover. That’s not a reason for paid-for public notices in print.

The figures are replicated across the country according to database JICREG with 67,759 copies of the Birmingham Mail on a Friday in a city of 2,440,986. In Greater Manchester, this is 126,293 on their busiest day for the Manchester Evening News in a population of 2,685,400. In Glasgow, the Evening Times reaches 33,397 in a population 2,850,000. The online readership of these three newspapers will be far higher but figures are difficult to obtain. None of these newspapers show public notices when you enter the search term in their websites.

I’ve heard the anachronistic argument that somehow only newspapers can be trusted to publish public notice content. Somehow the act of handing over 200 words and paying through the nose for it to appear in the back of newspapers that few people in a borough read afford some undefined magic propertiies. This is, of course, balderdash.

The days when newspapers are the only means of communicating have ended. They are one of a number of channels. The requirement to take out public notice ads with them should end. Sometimes, they’ll be the best way of communicating. But that decision should be de-centralised down to the local authority.

 

Four ways public notices breach Government advice

It wouldn’t be so bad if the current millstone doesn’t go against Government advice. But it does.

The 2011 DCLG  Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity is the legal yardstick. Here’s what it says:

It says publicity should be cost effective – that’s section 2. Print notices are not.

It says that they should be ‘value for money.’ Print notices are not. That’s section 10.

It says that advertising shouldn’t subsidise voluntary, public or commercial organisations. That’s section 13. That’s what print notices do.

It also says that public relations guidance should be sought before embarking on expensive publicity. That’s section 14.

 

And a few other ways it breaches Government policy

The Cabinet Office published the excellent and aspirational Government Digital Strategy in 2013.

“In just over 2 decades the internet has become a huge part of our everyday lives. Today 82 per cent of adults in the UK are online. Completing transactions online has become second nature, with more and more of us going online for shopping, banking, information and entertainment. Why? Because online services tend to be quicker, more convenient and cheaper to use.

“But until now government services have stood out by their failure to keep up with the digital age. While many sectors now deliver their services online as a matter of course, our use of digital public services lags far behind that of the private sector.

“Government has got to do better. This Digital Efficiency Report suggests that transactions online can already be 20 times cheaper than by phone, 30 times cheaper than postal and as much as 50 times cheaper than face-to-face .

“By going digital by default, the government could save between £1.7 and £1.8 billion each year. But this isn’t just about saving money – the public increasingly expects to access services quickly and conveniently, at times and in ways that suit them. We will not leave anyone behind but we will use digital technology to drive better services and lower costs.”

  • Frances Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office

 

This is all excellent stuff. It articulates exactly why local government should be digital by default and not be held back by the anachronism of print public notices.

 

And bloggers too…?

Bloggers are able to attend public meetings and video, blog and post realtime updates. This is a good thing and opens up the whole often very dull decision making process to public scrutiny. This is an excellent step from DCLG. They hailed it as: ‘a boost for local democracy and the independent free press, councils in England were brought into the 21st century.’

That freedom should be opened up for bloggers too. How can they carry data from public notices alongside the mainstream Press?

 

So what would all this look like?

Information can be communicated effectively using the web. It could be added to a council page. An RSS feed or a widget could allow others – newspapers, broadcasters or bloggers – provided free-of-charge to carry the feed on their own pages.

Of course, if there was a pressing business case for print advertising this could happen too. But that’s the thing. Rather than being a print-by-default position it should be one of several channels.

This already happens in two places. Firstly, the TellmeScotland website aggregates and distributes public notice alerts through text and email.

Secondly, in ice and snow a more geurilla approach sees gritting updates aggregated and distributed in the West Midlands. On Twiitter, the hashtag #wmgrit is used by authorities in the region. A coveritLive widget here can be re-used on websites.

So what next?

There are bright people in local government who can produce the answer. Some of them are in the localgovdigital group although relying on a handful of volunteers in the sector is not the answer.

Maybe this is for larger bodies to support with time and resources. Communications teams should take the lead and work with web to come up with solutions. Maybe, that’s SOCITM, LGComms, the LGA and others coming together with local government officers.

Whatever the future. in 2015, the current situation which sees an enforced subsidy through paid-for ads to wealthy newspaper groups should not form part of the answer.

So, how do we do this?


19 Comments on “LISTEN BETTER: Why the Tyranny of Public Notices Should End – and What To Do About It”

  1. I’d love to see public notices with embedded data to give location, date of effect, nature of works, etc. It would be a great shortcut for anyone trawling notices for hyper local news, or plotting actions in a map, or anything…

    You could even include hyperlinks to the orgs involved!

  2. Almost all the serious knowledge on this lies in Scotland, including the publicly tendered-for portal tellmescotland (which to be fair you mention). I could have a rant (at some length) about the number of times I (and others) have tried to speak (and the number of times the Scottish Improvement Service – a Scottish government quango has tried to speak) to all sorts of local and national government Comms/Procurement people, who haven’t responded, so instead I suggest you give me a call if you are really interested in this. You can find my number on my website (link below, which also has numerous blog pieces on the subject). Sad to say, I know more about public notice advertising than is good for anyone one person, and have the senior media contacts to know what is going on there (something you haven’t really touched on above). There are literally £millions to be saved on your public notice advertising, even before you start using any new technology, so why are most councils not interested?

  3. Wobable says:

    In my local area the local paper has just folded. Not sure what that means for the local authority…do they advertise in a paper that doesn’t cover the area affected? How much more of a waste of money is that?

    The only concern I have (and is certainly not a reason to keep them!) is to do with archiving. Newspapers are easy (though bulky) to store and return to in the future… I am thinking of future historians, family history types, archivists, even armchair detectives. That is not to say electronic material can’t be archived and stored and made available publicly for generations to come (though there are challenges around format), but that this needs to be thought about at publication… You can’t rely on the fact it will automatically be stored (as you can with a newspaper).

  4. Jon King says:

    On the money as usual, Dan. In what other context could an LG Officer justify spending £181K per year on advertising that provides no measurement of ROI?

    • So why, when they are offered the chance to save money on public notices, with a demonstrable ROI (see: http://www.lgiu.org.uk/2012/10/31/public-notices-reducing-spend/ for one that did) do so few councils (including the Comms people!) refuse to even discuss it, or to investigate tellmescotland in more detail? If you’d like to see some ROI, it exists in Scotland in the work for the business case for changing the law…. and it’s not very good. PINS should be online, but there needs to be some back-up and some realisation of the politics involved around a forthcoming election…..

  5. davidhiggerson says:

    I guess this might be red rag to a bull but here goes anyway. From the time we used to talk quite a bit Dan, I got the impression you were at a relatively open-minded council where it came to transparency. Your approach to open data was an example of that.

    Sadly, not all councils are the same. A council’s approach to FOI is a good indicator of where it stands on transparency. You only have to look at, for example, the Rotten Boroughs page of Private Eye every fortnight to see examples of where things are being done in a way that they shouldn’t.

    Local government exists to serve the public and being accountable is essential. We shouldn’t live in a world where we have to fight for transparency, or battle through spin from (some) council press offices, but we do.

    Whatever approach emerges in the future must be one which forces all authorities to release at least as much information as they do now, in a way they don’t control. I don’t think a page on a council website does the trick. It needs to be in a space which provides the best possible opportunity of someone finding it. People don’t visit council websites through habit, they go because they need something. Very few people will think ‘lets see what the council has to consult on.’

    Many regional newspaper websites tick this box. Display advertising around the news channel directing people to the public notice (written in English people understand, perhaps, and at a font size not chosen to keep the cost down) would achieve everything you’re setting out, plus ensure it’s reaching people who wouldn’t think to search for it, which I think is critical.

    That audience comes at a cost, obviously.

    But I think just as big an issue is the council’s determination to be accountable, or not. Even councils which run their own weekly newspapers on the grounds it means they can reach more people with their public notices manage to stick them near the back of the book.

    Just my thoughts….

    • Dan Slee says:

      Thanks, David. I’m in a cottage with flakey wifi so will draft a proper response in a couple of days.

    • Dan Slee says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for stopping by and sorry that its taken so long to reply. I’ve been in mid-Wales and then charging through a big backlog of work trying to start the New Year without being too far behind.

      You’ve done some really great stuff at Trinity Mirror whose Birmingham Pub bombings stuff was breathtakingly good. It was absolutely what I’d always imagined the future of news on the web to look like. Only better. It was sharable, commentable, connected and told a a story brilliantly. It is the future of news and I doff my cap to your employer for that.

      We’ve touched upon this issue before and we’ve always debated this in good spirit. I’m sure that this won’t change.

      However, you have, as my former news editor used to say, got this one ‘completely around your ear.’

      Local government paying through the nose for ad space for ads that few people read and even fewer respond on is wrong. Even when times are good. But when times are bad it is an obscenity.

      I was a journalist for 12 years and a press officer in local government for eight years so I have an appreciation of both sides. I’m still in the NUJ. More out of habit than having to rely on it day-to-day.

      Newspapers used to have four advertising cash cows they have milked for decades. Jobs, property, motor, public notices and small ads. Jobs has gone online. So did property. Small ads by and motor too. That leaves public notices and boy, can I see why the newspaper industry wants to hang onto it kicking and screaming.

      I’ve no problem at all with public notices. Their spirit is is transparency-by-law and they serve an important purpose in shining a light on a future decision to ask for comments. Nobody can pretend that the system that we have now is the best we can do. How many councils get into Private Eye for failing with their obligations with Public Notices? I’m not aware of one. But I’m willing to guess that if they had there would be a sharp lawyer ready.
      I’ve no problem with that.

      You are quite right in saying that just publishing to a council web page isn’t the answer. That’s why linked to email alerts, text if there is money, an RSS and an embeddable widget means that they can be shared on whichever web page a website owner chooses. This may be a newspaper, a blogger, a radio or a TV station.

      A bright newspaper can use this content to drive traffic to its own website.

      It’s a nonsense to suggest that anyone – newspapers or otherwise – should have the audacity to charge for sharing content. Or that anyone should be so foolish to pay for something that thanks to the web and some code they can do for free. If a website owner doesn’t want to join in, then that’s fine. They shouldn’t have to.

      If this ineffective spend was anywhere else other there would be an outrage and a slew of stories. I think you can reasonably ask the question of council leaders what they would do with their share of public notice money if a better system was in place and they didn’t have to take out expensive ads.

      Would they keep a library service? A Sure Start centre? Help fund 100 care packages for vulnerable people? Repair some potholes, maybe?

      In 2015, this is absolutely the bottom line.

      • davidhiggerson says:

        I think we are destined to disagree on this. I should add these are my opinions, not those of my employer.

        The scenario you are describing is one where a council should be obligated by law to be publish public notices, but the onus should be on others to make sure it got shared.

        Building audiences of the scale most regional websites have now – and several of the ones I work with reach the majority of adults in their area each week – costs money. It involves investing in content which appeals to people, and competing in a space which has never before so competitive. It’s easy to dismiss the regional press as shrinking and less relevant, but it actually reaches far more people than ever before.

        And it involves investing time and effort in things which are important for society, such as scrutiny of local democracy. Many local government officers and politicians believe that to be as important as journalists do, but sadly many have also done their hardest to make scrutiny by the press very difficult.

        It’s for that reason that I believe it is reasonable for local authorities to spend money publicising decisions which impact on people’s lives. I too can’t remember the last time I saw a Rotten Boroughs article about public notices, but I can think of many, many examples of councils being exposed for not doing things right, or bending the rules beyond belief.

        So if we had a system where councils *only* had to say ‘here are our public notices, share them if you want’ what would happen? Are we saying local publications online are morally obliged to share that information? I’m sure in many cases they would, but in the form of articles based on those public notices, maybe linking to them. But that’s not enough.

        Just as many councils took the spirit of the changes to the Local Government Act in the early 2000s too far by creating decision-making systems which ensured as little as possible was released to the public, so too many councils would abuse this system.

        But I still believe that councils have the power to change lives, but that power is only gifted to them by the people who vote for them. I believe that part of the assessment of how well councils, as well as politicians, perform should be their ability to get people to the ballot box.

        That involves making sure people are engaged with what is going on to the point where they feel they need to vote. Local news organisations play a crucial role here, and would benefit massively from greater openness from councils too.

        But crucially, if a decision being taken by a council is so important it warrants a public notice, then it warrants expenditure to reach that audience.

        I’m not saying the current system shouldn’t be changed, because the world is changing. There clearly needs to be a solution for areas where there are no longer print publications. But at the heart of successful local government is accountability from the public. The more people who see a public notice, the greater that chance of accountability. Reaching those people in a way which does wrap up a public notice in spin (eg council newspapers) does have to cost money, because that audience costs money to serve.

        I worked as a political reporter for a decade, during which time we increasingly saw councils working as hard as possible to just put their side of the story over, withholding facts which didn’t suit them. That’s where my view about public notices comes from. Public notices are about subjects which can impact lives, and it’s important as many people see them as possible.

    • Dan Slee says:

      David,

      I think we agree that we’re not going to agree on this. But there are some things we do agree on.

      I’m glad you agree that the current position needs to change. It does. For all the reasons above. I also agree that sometimes a printed public notice is the answer. But I think that judgement should be up to the local authority the same as it is when it campaigns for people to sign-up to the electoral register, quit smoking or any other of the 750 services that local government does.

      Permit me, but I think you fundamentally misunderstand what Public Notices are. They are legal documents published to let people know that a decision is about to be taken and asking for a range of views. They are often written with the full input of the legal team in order that they meet their statutory obligations. This is because each line and syllable is closely scrutinised by the legal teams of people with an interest in the final decision.

      That’s fine and the nature of the decision making process.

      The Public Notice text would be the same if it were published in a council mag, the local freesheet or the London Gazette. To suggest that because they would be published by the council they would be somehow ‘spin’ is wholly inaccurate. To suggest that a paid-for ad on a newspaper URL somehow is made of purer stuff is just as inaccurate.

      I’ve spoken to many reporters, ex-reporters and public sector comms people. The stuff they write is closely governed by the Code of Recommended Practice in Local Government from the DCLG.I kept this close by during my time as I’d occasionally be asked to bend the rules. Sometimes those asking didn’t know what the rules were. Sometimes they knew fine well but to quote the chapter and verse was useful.

      I’ve no problem when local government gets nailed for doing something stupid with FOI. If it has it deserves it. But to think that everyone in the sector is at it is as useful as the police officer who only arrests drunks on New Years Eve thinks that everyone in town is drunk.

      Here’s a thing, David.

      I found far more pressure to ‘put the jacks under that’ to ‘tickle it up a bit’ or to ‘forget the Tartan period’ when I was a journalist than I did when I was working in local government.

      Here’s another thing.

      Once or twice I heard reference to people wanting the public notice to be printed in the Monday edition of the paper rather than the day when the jobs were published so there was less chance of people seeing and objecting. I objected then when I worked in local government as I object now when I no longer do.

      So, a system, like the Scottish system or a council webpage which published the Public Notice and was free to be re-used by anyone through RSS or a widget, which would have metadata to allow email alerts by ward, subject or borough is eminently the answer.

      It is open, transparent and also would not lead to a library being closed or a packet of respite care cut.

  6. David/Dan,

    Have you done any research on this? Have you looked at the relative sizes of newspaper online circulations vis-a-vis print? Have you considered the penetration of (council) social media, and of broadband access in areas of socio-economic deprivation and then matched this with newspaper circulations/online reach into these areas? Do you know what the publishers are doing (one of the big four is trying to push a compulsory ‘upsell’ into digital which, I understand, some councils are paying!)? Have you spoken to senior media people about this? All of the publishers are trying very hard to provide something that will head off a ‘tellme’ solution, so they don’t lose their revenue from PINS. I, and other people in Scotland, can help you with all of this….

  7. […] public sector PR and communications expert, Dan Slee recently posted, the system is ripe for a […]

  8. […] been a lot of blogging on the topic: I am going to separate this out into two issues – firstly keeping people informed […]

  9. Rick Waghorn says:

    Am late to this particular party; albeit I have thoughts of my own elsewhere.

    The conversations I see above still appear to be steered through the lens of print to web. To desktop, when to my mind the second ‘tidal wave of disruption’ that is mobile is already engulfing this debate with new challenges… And opportunities.

    Principal among them is the ability to deliver location. To the nearest 150m as wifi/wireless coverage becomes every more ubiquitous. And embedding a mobile economy in the UK is something that sits high on the agenda of the Cabinet Office. I know. I have had those discussions.

    A planning alert is, by and large, only of interest/relevance to those within a 500m/1km radius.

    Exceptions, of course. But do I care if No37 Pine Tree Avenue is having a flat roof extension if I live on the other side of town? Er, no.

    Do I care if I live at no35? Absolutely. And do I expect the local council to do its best to adhere to its legal obligation to inform me? Absolutely.

    Am I still picking up my evening newspaper from the newsagents at the end of the Avenue? No.

    To argue otherwise increasingly insults intelligences.

    Am I reading said newspaper website online… Very possibly.

    But should I still be paying the same ad rate for staining a tree as delivering a widget into a third parties website? Er, no. Whatever the historical cost is of building that audience.

    But, the web is going…. To mobile. As David’s figures will attest.

    Are the local newspaper’s still the most trusted and reliable messenger, locally, for the delivery of said notices. Yes.

    Where should these notices be weaved into? Into a mobile setting. Could newspapers reasonably charge for delivering a mobile audience in one, specific locational setting? Yes.

    At today’s print rates? No.

    Could hard-pressed local authorities utilise a new, location-sensitive mobile setting that might be planning alerts ‘fit for the 21st Century’ to deliver more targeted Messages off other internal service providers and find fresh savings? Absolutely.

    Foster care opportunities targetted into estates of relative plenty; news of the literacy vans arrival into only areas of clear and data-defined need? Where everyone has their mobys.

    The brave new world is mobile. Embrace it. It could be the (re)making of the both of you.

    R

    • davidhiggerson says:

      I agree with a lot of what Rick says, although I don’t think the discussion Dan has led has been about print to desktop so much as print to digital. For what it’s worth, I still think print is an important part of the mix here.

      If we remove all the hyperbole around public notices, it boils down to this: Councils are not businesses, they exist to provide public services and those who run the councils (in theory) are politicians elected by the public. Depending on the politician, this can be a blessing or a curse for the real experts, the council officers, but I suspect that’s an issue for another day.

      Councils provide services which impact on peoples’ lives. They take big decisions. It is important the public knows about these possible decisions before they are made. I would imagine that is how the public notice came about.

      It is important that as many people as possible see that public notice so they can have a say in advance. I might not live in Blackburn or be near to the location of a change in parking restrictions, but what if I go there every day for a reason? It’s important the council makes every effort to share its plans before it makes the decision.

      The public notice puts in place rules which ensure that proposals deemed so important the council has to publicise them independently are publicised. Newspaper/digital newsrooms are in the business of building audience to make money (and some very successfully are more than replacing lost print revenue with digital revenue) and in most towns and cities the local newspaper remains the biggest audience location in the area, be it print, online or both.

      Often, these public notices involves informing the public of a decision the council wants to take. It is a party with a vested interest, and while I accept Dan’s point that public notices are written in a manner which suits lawyers but few others, can we really be sure that if all the council had to do was publish the notice on its website and hope others shared it, there wouldn’t be abuse of the system?

      I would argue more things need to fall under the terms of public notices so the public knew more about what was being decided, and written in a way those of us without law degrees or 30 years in local government could understand.

      There are many, many councils who do strive to ensure the public can hold it to account and be involved in decisions before they happen. It’s the ones that don’t, and the ones where the press office priority appears to be to spin the council’s line rather than just share the facts about the public services it runs, which worry me when I look at Dan’s idea.


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