This post is based on a LGiU members briefing (£) written by Juliet Morris
Writing in the Guardian, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles said “glossy council propaganda sheets threaten local newspapers and waste taxpayers’ money“. This desire to ‘crack down’ on council-led public communications came through again last week when The Government laid a revised Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity before Parliament. It will replace the 2001 Code, providing statutory guidance on the content, style, distribution and cost of local authority publicity, that is “any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public or a section of the public”.
Mr. Pickles summarised the Government’s objectives: “the rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long squandering public funds and pushing local newspapers out into the abyss”.
The Code is now structured around seven central principles to ensure that council publicity is: lawful; cost effective; objective; even handed; appropriate; has regard to equality and diversity, and; is issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity. It includes specific prohibitions against:
- publishing newspapers that are in direct competition with the local press;
- publishing newspapers any more frequently than quarterly and including material other than that directly related to local services;
- lobbying or advertising in order to influence public opinion, government or political parties to a particular view.
The Government has sought to achieve guidance that is clear in its principles but drafted in sufficiently general terms as to allow its adaptation by every type of authority, model of governance and format for publicity. It has also sought to address some very particular objectives around the use of newsletters and lobbyists.
The result is the slightly uneasy combination of broad new framework, founded on some constructively generic principles, with some very detailed proscriptions. Whilst the former seeks to liberate council communications, the latter seeks to curtail its scope and purpose. The Code will require careful interpretation in order that councils continue to make best, strategic use of their publicity (and limited budget). The danger is that this careful interpretation will continue to restrain its potential.
The LGiU has long championed the need for a fundamental overhaul of the Publicity Code in order to address its inherent ambiguities and limited scope, In particular, it has argued the importance of enabling local authorities to promote democracy, champion the role of elected members and fulfil their community leadership role. Whilst the new draft is somewhat frustrating in these regards, its arrival is important nonetheless.
Councils will need to assess their current approach to publicity against the new provisions to ensure compliance. They may also wish to rise to the Government’s wider challenge to “take an innovative approach to getting information to those that need it”. It presents the opportunity for councils to look afresh at their publicity strategy, with particular reference to the demands of the Big Society agenda and today’s media environment, and to develop a more proactive approach:
- exploring their communications needs and ambitions – to promote the role and work of elected members, facilitate democratic debate and accountability, engender participation and engagement, and promote co-operation and partnership;
- better exploiting the mechanisms by which to achieve those ends – not only with reference to the new Code but especially to capitalise on web-based opportunities which escape the Code’s limits to reduce unfair competition with the local press.
Councils can take heart from the distinction made between publicity reflecting the views of the council and that of individuals. It should enable councillors to continue making good use of websites, blogs and social networking media, within the context of codes of conduct and equalities duties, rather than council oversight.
Councils will also want to consider: the potential for the well-being power as the basis to a substantive publicity and communications activity; the duty to cooperate on Local Area Agreements; the duty to involve local people; and the equalities duties. In these, they will be reassured by the Code’s equality and diversity provisions which not only sanction but encourage proaction in order to influence public attitudes and behaviours in relation to community matters, equalities and cohesion, and the express provision of the need to tackle misleading third party information.
Finally, councils may take some comfort in Government’s confirmation that the only means of enforcement is in the form of complaints to the council or local auditor from members of the public.