Public notices – the case for radical reform: part 1

I want a vibrant, investigative local press. One that will, with strength, scrutinise local institutions. But how can newspapers do this when they are bound by a backdoor subsidy to the very organisations they seek to hold to account?

Councils spend up to £67.85m every year publishing public notices in local newspapers. The individual cost of publishing a notice can reach over £20 per column cm in some publications, upwards of three times the cost for other adverts.

This system provides no feedback to councils and ignores the fact that the audience is moving from print towards a more varied digital landscape.

Councils are crying out for change – over 90% of the councils LGiU have surveyed want the current legal requirements on public notices updated – “they are an out-of-date anachronism of a pre-electronic age” says one participant, with three-quarters (76.6%) indicating they would prefer to publish online only – see graph below.

In terms of cost and time effectiveness, the success of reaching and engaging an audience and assessing feedback, the vast majority of residents rated the current system as bad or very bad – see graph below.

It is clear that councils are not getting value for their money. “I have worked for 30 years in this authority some of it as DC manager. As far as I am aware in that time we have had less than 10 responses to a published notice” said Tim Lewis, Planning Officer, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

LGiU wants to see a mixture of subtle and radical change:

  • 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 offer users a email subscription service, allowing uses 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 – like the Scottish Government and COSLA have done north of the border.

These changes will allow councils to stop thinking of public notices as, like John Shewell, Head of Communications at Brighton & Hove City Councils says, a “total waste of money”, but as a opportunity through which to drive better engagement with communities and improve their channel shift strategies.

These changes will impact on the local press – £67.85m is a significant contribution to commercial newspaper industry’s turnover. Democracy depends on dialogue and there is no doubt that a vibrant, local media is vital to the democratic process. But, current media trends (see a new audience below) invites some hard questions:

  • is the local press holding local authorities to account?
  • in today’s growing digital media landscape, what additional value does the traditional local press offer over newer local media, citizen-led media channels?
  • how many local reporters would still be described as being at heart of their communities?

These are challenging questions, and the answers will vary enormously around the country. But, I believe if we are to have a vibrant press we should have an open debate about this – a debate that the current backdoor subsidy obscures rather than elucidates.

A new audience

The migration of the audience from print to digital is well known. This, in general, is leaving local newspapers with decreasing readership numbers of print editions. In response, most editors are increasingly turning their attention to a title’s online presence.

At the same time, the number and readership of citizen-led hyperlocal, neighbourhood websites is increasing. Research conducted by Networked Neighbourhoods found that 84% of elected members claim they are aware of a neighbourhood site in their area, the figure rises to 92% for officers.

Not only is the audience going online, but it’s fragmenting – going to ‘traditional’ media for some news, but also ‘new’ media for other information.

This multi-layered local media landscape can be a positive for local government. Rather than just publishing notices in a local newspaper, or on the council website, councils should look to work with traditional and new news producers to go where the eyeballs are and explore how these third parties can carry more content that directs people towards the council website.

This could work off RSS feeds that are shared through information sharing widgets that can be reused on other website. This would involve some risk from councils, in terms of where the content ends, but the information itself can not be tampered with up but will mean their content is seen by many more people in the online environment.

The Highways Agency currently uses such widgets which have been shared with, and used by, some local authority websites already. One widget was shared on 57 seperate websites within a month of launch.

Such arrangements may open the possibility of new funding revenues for the news sites.

For example, a pay-per-click model would

  • encourage news sites to carry more useful, useable information for local residents
  • councils pay by results, rather than upfront
  • provide councils with greater data as to how many people engage with public notices

This is what stage 2 of this project will turn more focus to. LGiU welcomes your thoughts on this – especially from those involved in local newspapers and editors of hyperlocal, neighbourhood websites.

You can download the full report here.

About this project

LGiU is undertaking a practical study to explore new, simple and more effective ways for councils to distribute public notices –  and we seek your involvement.

This project consists of three stages.

  1. LGiU has conducted a survey of local government to establish a feel for the current environment. The results of this survey are covered in this short report.
  2. For the next few months LGiU, working alongside GovDelivery, will engage with a small, varied group of local authorities to design, build and use new web-based tools to publish public notices on the authorities website, and also through local traditional media and newer hyperlocal, community sites.  Each tool will be designed with the authority – so each tool will differ and have specific elements relevant to the authority. This will provide a range of new data on the potential of digital methods of deliver.
  3.  By putting together all our information and insights from stages 1 and 2, LGiU will actively seek to work with more authorities to share best practice.
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