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?
We think this will work for comms and PR people but we think this will also be valuable for people who are working in your organisation on projects big and small that need communicating.
We could just give you a list of speakers but want to tell you about how this came about.
We had a conversation with someone a while back about big public sector projects and what separates the good ones from the bad.
As we talked we pictured a very real scenario and we came up with two options to choose from.
First, the scenario… part of your organisation has a great idea that could change how something is done, save money and lead to a better service.
What could go wrong?
Well, here are the options…
Option one: Project team don’t really bother with the comms until the end because they’re too busy and anyway, they don’t see the point. The comms team get left in the dark by the project team until the end… and the idea fails. “Clearly, it was the comms team,” the project team mutter. “There was nothing wrong with our idea. That was brilliant.”
“If only they’de spoken to us earlier,” the comms team mutter back.
Result: failure, unhappy project team, unhappy comms team and an angry chief executive.
Option two: Project team sit down with the comms team from the start. They shape a comms plan that they both know will work. There’s a project objective. There’s a comms objective that’s identical. There’s something to measure to know if the comms is working. The idea gets well communicated by the comms team. It’s a success.
“Hooray,” say the project team. “Our idea that we had in a room with six people in it has become a success amongst thousands,” say the project team.
Result: happy project team, happy comms team, success and a happy chief executive.
Of course, we’d all choose the second scenario, wouldn’t we?
The thing is, life is not like that, and we can all reel off a long list of times when it hasn’t and fewer times when it has.
What you’ll get out of #commsforchange14
So, at the end of our conversation we grew convinced of the need to put on an event that would set out the reasons for getting the project team and the comms team together early to make the thing a success.
We wanted comms people and project people speaking to share how they did it.
We wanted comms people to be fired up to go back and knock on the doors of big project people so they could get involved to help make a difference.
We wanted the event to be partly traditional, with speakers and slides so the success stories could be articulated and you’d know what you’d get.
But we wanted an unconference element in the afternoon because we’ve run them before at commscamp and for LGComms and with PSCSF and we know they will work. This sees that part of the agenda drawn-up based on what the people in the room wanted to talk about. Maybe there were lessons to be shared.
We wanted an event that showed why getting comms involved early and them being on the top table will help the organisation.
Of course, the great thing about doing comms2point0 is being able to turn a conversation and an idea into reality and with the excellent Nick Hill of Public Sector Customer Services Forum we’ve done just that andon Wednesday September 24 at the Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham #commsforchange will become a reality.
Who will be speaking?
There’s a range of hand picked people for you here:
John McPherson, Internal Communications Manager, Leeds City Council
Iain Patterson, Chief Technology Officer, DVLA
Adrian Capon, Senior Communications Manager, Yorkshire Housing (TBC)
Dan Slee, Co-founder, comms2point0
Darren Caveney, Co-founder, comms2point0
You can find more out about the event on Wednesday September 24 at the Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham by clicking the link here.
Forecasts say there will be 40 per cent job losses in some areas of the public sector with £3.3 billion being taken from the voluntary sector over a five year period and £20 billion coming from local government and £15 billion of efficiency savings due in the NHS.
So, what stories are being shaped? If you work in the sector it’s probably long overdue time to think about it.
A) Apply a positive gloss and insist that yes, efficiencies will be made but frontline services will not be cut.
B) Tell people that they had their chance to have their say in the budget consultation and they blew it.
C) Tell people that this is what cuts look like.
All too often people in the public sector have been going for a) to try and minimise panic and upset on the population. But with £20 billion worth of cuts coming down the tracks in local government we need to be above all honest. So, let’s just take a closer look at that, shall we?
What insisting that efficiencies will be made and frontline services will not be cut means
You’ve been cutting millions of pounds from budgets for years. But the frontline hasn’t been affected? Efficiencies? Clearly, you were wasting that money all along so why on earth should I trust you now?
Or, you’re trying to be a bit clever and you know that the frontline will very much be affected but the couple of hours of mobile library visit will somehow make-up for the five-day-a-week building the community used to have. People won’t buy it, or they’ll see through it. So, why should they trust you now?
What telling people that they’ve had their chance means
You’ve pinned up details of a public meeting at the church hall and you paid three times the rate for a display ad in the local paper because it’s a public notice and they’ve got you over a barrel. Twelve people turned up and the Twitter chat you ran reached a fair number but not everyone. In other words, you’ve not done a very good job of this public consultation lark. Why should they trust you now?
What telling people that this is what cuts look like looks like
In Birmingham, this is exactly what Cllr James McKay told the Evening Mail about green bin charges in the City as people were protesting against cuts. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, people won’t like it. But look yourself in the eye. This is the truth. This is going to happen more and more and public sector comms increasingly is going to be about what you don’t do rather than you do.
But at least they’ll trust you more because you are being honest.
A grown-up conversation is needed about communicating cuts and if you work in the area you need to work out which choice you make pretty quick.
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Well, it’s had a great innings but can we now finally bury the idea that using social media ad hoc in an organisation is going to change the world?
But what great days we did have.
We had a mantra of JFDI in local government – just flipping do it – and we did things under the rader without permission.We would chuck up a Facebook page knowing that IT didn’t know what it was so they couldn’t block it.
We could tweet election results without too much interference, snigger behind our hands and we could push the envelope.
But those days are over. We learned lots but no, we didn’t take over the world even though it felt as though we would. Today, many public sector teams have been cut back too far to have space to innovate. Even more worryingly, teams haven’t found a way to tackle the big issues that really matter to make a difference. They haven’t found a way to get the resources to do so either.
Sure, the trojan mouse idea of testing out four or five ideas to see where it’ll take you is one I enthusiastically believe in to help you experiment and see what works. But to really make a difference bright communications people need to take all that experience and find out what is keeping senior people awake at night. Then go hell for leather to tackle that, that and only that. But make sure the senior people know exactly what you are doing by reporting back using every means neccesary. Infographics are particularly good. Make yourself a sandwich board if you have to but just flipping do it.
Here’s a few ideas to help you…
Are you helping senior people sleep at night?
Here’s an exercise I came across during the LGComms Future Leaders programme at a session at Leeds Metropolitan University with Anne Gregory and Paul Willis. It was the best piece of training I had in the eight years I spent in local government and I suggest you do this quick exercise.
- Get a piece of paper and draw a blob in the middle.
- Think of six people you do most of your work for in your organisation and write their names on the paper… the more important they are the closer to the blob you can write their name.
- Write down some things – let’s say six things – that keep those six people awake at night.
- Ask yourself, are you really spending time with the really key people?
- Ask yourself, are you really doing things to help the really key people sleep at night?
My own conclusion to doing this exercise was that I wasn’t really tackling the issues that matter for the people that matter and I’ll bet you a slice of Victoria sponge that you aren’t either.
The goal of the bright communications team should not be vague ‘reputation’ or ‘awareness’. It is to prove in pounds, shillings and pence if needs be the value of the team before it is too late. It’s why I’ve long been convinced that channel shift and customer service are things that comms teams need to be closely involved with.
So how can we help tackle the issues that keep senior people awake?
If I had a pound for every time someone told me the words: ‘What we need is a comms plan,’ I’d have been rich. What they meant was they wanted you to tick a box for them. What they really wanted was to outsource the responsibility to you when we all know to be effective it should be a joint thing.
What you really need is a comms plan agreed jointly with the senior people around a table. This can take many forms but they need to have the following:
- Where they are now.
- Where they want to go.
- Something measurable and tangiable to show when they’ve got there.
- Who they want to talk to and how they can do it.
- Some ideas of resources.
- Some idea of evaluation.
Some of what’s in your plan will be traditional comms and some will be digital. You’ll have a mix of both and you’ll be working to make a difference to your organisation for the people who are going to be making big budget decisions in the not too distant future.
If yuo get this right your bosses’ boss will sleep at night.
And you won’t be sleepwalking towards a cliff either
By the way, I’m now available to help you with all of this and would love to do so. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org and @danslee on Twitter.
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We will awake https://www.flickr.com/photos/25028863@N00/5612074901/
Back in the day, you’d get a big ruler, a sheaf of cuttings and work out column inches.
Then maybe work out who could have read them.
Proudly, you’d boast of how 500,000 would have seen your campaign.
Then everyone would pat themselves on the back.
Only thing is, that nice as that is that just doesn’t prove a hill of beans.
How many turned a page and ignored it?
Add social media into the landscape and things get even more complicated. That niche Facebook page with 200 liking it? A waste of time? Not at all. Not if its the right number for that niche activity.
How do you measure success?
What counts? Likes? Retweets? Twitter followers?
Maybe the number of press releases you wrote or the tweets you sent?
The impact of communications – traditional or digital – must be not the passive audience who glanced at it but what people did as a result of it.
So, in other words, it’s how many people signed up for that course or how many used a web form instead of calling a help desk.
Frustratingly, that means it’s not a universal measurement. Getting 12 people signed-up for basket making session could well be just as much a success as getting 100 to join a library.
But it’s more than that.
One thing that’s always irritated me about measurement – particularly social media measurement – is a the vagueness of the results.
Take Klout. Break the news to your chief executive your organisations’ score is 55 and they’ll more than likely look at you strangely.
Other monitoring that produces a notional number also leaves me cold.
Your rating has gone up by 2.2. So what?
But it could well be that comms people already have the answer to all this right under their noses.
The cost of things counts
A few years ago, web standards organisation SOCITM did some research into the cost to local government of doing things for residents when they got in contact.
Doing something face-to-face costs £8.62, by telephone £2.83 and the web 15p.
Accountants PWC apparently also did some similar work calculating the cost of local government replying to a letter was around £10.
So maybe one way to evaluate some comms activity was to look at the situation before you got involved and then look at it after.
In other words, helping channel shift, that act of going from the expensive offline to the cost effective online.
Did the number of phonecalls dip? Did the letters fall? Did more people use the web to report it?
That’s a figure that really start to pass the chief executive credibility test.
That’s also a language that officers can understand too.
That could well be the beginnings of an argument not just to better evaluate but critically to help explain and justify the role of communications in the public sector in 2013.
That’s quite a powerful idea.
Dr Gerald Power’s white paper for Govdelivery on channel shift which is here.
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