Councils want the LGA to do more to promote and defend the reputation of local government. The new LGA Chair, Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell, has called for a “renaissance of confidence in the vital work we do” with a unanimous motion passed at the LGA conference in Birmingham this week calling on the organisation to step up a gear in countering what is seen as unfair criticism. But, as delegates made clear this is a not a call for a slick marketing campaign.
Instead the need is to realign public perceptions through greater engagement and transparency, with localism and local councillors at the fore. Therefore it is worth considering what public perceptions actually are and whether they need to and can actually change. New research from the LGA/LGinsight (pdf) suggests that the “renaissance of confidence” is as much about challenging the views of local councils as it is about local residents. It is not residents who need to listen less to the media, but local government itself.
There are some individuals in this world who make great play of moaning about their council. Kevin Maguire, Associate Editor and political columnist for the Daily Mirror is one. With a shrug of the shoulders, in a lively debate at the LGA Conference on the role of the media, he could claim “moaning about councils is a national pastime… it’s what it’s all about.” One in ten (10%) of GB adults would agree and state that they are critical of their council without being asked, with a further 17% saying they are critical of their council if asked. Assuming an adult population of around 45 million this total of 27% equates to around 12 million people.
This is the same amount as those who say they speak highly of their council if asked (24%) or indeed without being asked (4%). The remaining 21 million people say they have no views either way or don’t know. Therefore for every person who does moan about their council there are two other people who do not. Indeed, when asked to rate the performance of their council overall two-thirds (67%) say they are satisfied, with only 17% saying they are dissatisfied (the rest being on the fence).
This is not to negate genuine council failures which people rightly moan about. Yet it is their personal experience that has more impact than national or even local media coverage. As the LGA/LGinsight report states “If someone loathes their council it is probably because they have personally had poor service, have experienced a council activity they think is wasteful, or think their council hasn’t listened to them.”
In this sense media coverage reinforces views rather than forms them. If there is to be a renaissance of confidence in local government then there has to be genuine intervention into councils or individual services that fail. The reputation of local government rests on its weakest link and these cannot be hidden or ignored on the basis that in general councils are the most efficient part of the public sector.
The survey shows that only 40% of GB adults think that their council listens to local residents when making decisions, down from 47% in October 2010. Councils have to listen to criticism and act. Some complaints are actually suggestions for improvements, many of which are probably right.
Reputation is genuinely in the hands of local councils not central government. Over half (56%) of GB adults trust their local council a great deal or a fair amount to spend money wisely.
In the verbatim comments to the survey, when asked to explain their views on trust and value for money, mentions of excessive pay, pensions and general council wastage (the national media agenda) were few and far between. Instead people who were not happy with their council talked about personal and local service failure. A quarter (25%) of those who said they don’t trust their council to spend money wisely argued that they had seen waste with their own eyes in their own areas. A further 14% said they don’t get the services they need, with just one in ten (10%) mentioning that they had read about it in local newspapers.
The poll was one of a series started in October 2010; when satisfaction levels were very similar to that seen in June 2011. The January poll stands out. This saw satisfaction fall by seven points to 62% – still three in five of the population. At the time seven in ten (70%) residents said they were dissatisfied with the way their council had kept pavements clear of ice and snow. This was a massive perceived service failure which dented opinion for some at the time, but has recovered since.
Local government is lucky to have the majority of people rating their services and themselves well. The Prime Minister himself at the LGA Conference stated that “local government is better than central government at being efficient” with councils doing a “brilliant job in tough circumstances.”
We all know that the more informed people are about what councils do the better they rate them, but it is also the case that those who have the best customer care experiences and more personal contact with councillors rate those organisations better. One size does not fit all and different residents need to be engaged in different ways, some just want information others want a conversation. All want their local council to deliver exceptional value for money.
If a renaissance is to follow, councils need to follow a period in which their assumptions are challenged to rebase their view of the world on hard facts. There is a vital role for public opinion research in understanding the complexities of local government reputation, rather than assuming that negative media automatically destroys it.
There should not be an assumption that residents automatically kick into moaning mode as soon as problems occur, spurred on by a rabid media. Instead the reputation of local government among the general public is reasonably resilient to problems if overall service delivery and value for money is good.
The “renaissance of confidence” can be seen as a direct challenge to local government. Councils need to listen to, engage with and inform their residents and then deal with the media – not the other way around. The LGA can help support a drive to improve local government reputation, but councils themselves have to take responsibility as it is their own performance for which they are being held to account in the vast majority of cases.
Neil Wholey is Chair of LGinsight which seeks to promote the use of public opinion research in local government to help inform decisions. He is also Head of Research and Customer Insight at Westminster City Council. The full details of the poll mentioned can be found at http://www.lgcomms.org.uk/asset/513/Poll%20Headlines.pdf. Populus carried out a survey of 1,000 GB adults by telephone between 10-12 June 2011.