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90% of the councils LGiU have surveyed want the current legal requirements on public notices updated – “they are an out-of-date anachronism of a pre-electronic age” says one participant, with three-quarters (76.6%) indicating they would prefer to publish online only – see graph below.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

    1. Jon Brenner says:

      Camden did some interesting work on this under a Public Service Agreement, which gave them freedom from publishing planning notices and use the funding for community engagement instead. Work was going on 2006 to 2008.

      Link to one right up of the work:

      This work also included improving site notices to make them far more user friendly – often one of the worst examples of how LG communicates with the public!

    2. Rob – thanks for raising this – from a local website perspective a simple RSS feed would be the most useful TBH. And not a painful LA produced widget (not least because third party widgets are limited on some platforms) or something badged as govdelivery for instance. Local websites tend to be run by volunteers without advertising and local notices are not interesting enough to make it worth them giving a free hit for a sponsored widget, in my opinion. An RSS feed can also then be fed into Facebook until Facebook cans that.

      I recall that this issues was looked at a while ago in central government, you still have a problem where primary legislation specifies ‘newspaper’, unless you are aware of case law where a judge has ruled that a newspaper website, and thus, then all websites are an acceptable substitute. It will always be a managed risk for the LA concerned so some will go for it others not. On an 80-20 basis there are probably half a dozen acts that, if amended to remove the local paper bit would affect the bulk of notices. But you have to persuade CLG that it is worth expending capital on this in whitehall to drive organised amendments as the legislation gets revised for something else.

    3. Tom McHugh says:

      Further information on the – Scotland’s Public Information Notices Portal is available at,com_is_blank/Itemid,1423/

      The portal supports ‘open government’ by providing public information through another channel of choice that is easily accessible, and convenient, and meets the expectations of citizens and communities in how they wish to be informed about local planning, licensing, road works and other general service activities that may impact on their daily lives.

    4. Cllr. Ken Angold-Stephens says:

      I agree with the comments made. I tried hard to get my Council to press the Government for a change in the system some years ago but it was not pursued. In addition at that time Eric Pickles stated it was ‘our duty to support local newspapers’ so would not hear of any change. In view of the financial constraints Councils are now under whether he would continue to take the same view, especially in view of the declining readership and the rise of electronic communication? Whilst I totally support going over to electronic means of publicising public notices there are still a significant number of people who do not have access to computers or i-phones so a means of communicating with them is still needed. I would suggest one solution might be a brief summary of notices appears in the printed press with an invitation to obtain a paper copy from the Council offices if required. This would still incur a cost but nowhere near the current amounts wasted on such advertising.
      Cllr. Ken Angold-Stephens

    5. FredMark says:

      We have a way to publish notices that addresses the modern world view of engagement and saves money provides -emailed alerts – text alerts – calendar view – integration with outlook -mapping to meetings – house appraisals for foreclosed homes. It archives notices and provides an affidavit proof of publishing. And we will white label it for your council. It is available for any council to use now to prove that they can do a good job of notices. This responds to Mr. Reasonable.
      To respond to Paul Francis: it may be, as you say, that most newspapers do not pander to their councils because they are receiving a rather handsome subsidy, but the appearance if impropriety (which is undeniable) is just as damaging to the creditiblity of the newspapers that are receiving the handout.

    6. Paul Francis says:

      “Bound by a backdoor subsidy” is rather misleading.

      The idea that local newspapers are somehow reluctant to shine a light where some councils would prefer it wasn’t because they [newspapers] might not get a public notice contract is, in my experience, complete nonsense.

    7. This assumes that you have a local authority that is keen to engage with its local residents and an effective electronic communication channel such as the council website. In Barnet the council have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on a website that for most people is incredibly diffiuclt to use and to find out information. Sometime notices can be three, four or even five separate clicks away from the front page so the chances of getting lost are huge. According to OFCOM 35% of 65-74 year olds are still not on line so they will be excluded from any strategy that focuses exclusively on on line and social media.

      From a resdients perspective, public notices is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps Local Authorities need to take a stepback back an look at their wider community engagment and communication strategy. How do they tell residents about what they are doing what decisions they are taking who their representaitves are, what they can and can’t do, and so on. Talk to 90% of residents on the street and they don’t know who the runs the council (leader of chief executive) what their plans are, how the money is spent etc. Maybe I have a bad experience with my council but I suspect this is a widespread problem and just addressing public notices to save £68 million is missing the much bigger issue.

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