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Turning the tide on the “post-politician” era

Reflections

Trust in politicians remains the lowest since records began; a clear demarcation that the system is simply not marrying up to the expectations of a 21st century society.

Ipsos Mori reports that just 9% of the British public trust politicians to tell the truth, and perhaps even more startling, just “2% of those aged 25-34 consider politicians to be truthful”. 34% believe local councillors to be truthful and trusted – a sad statistic for the people volunteering their time as elected representatives.

It is, beyond doubt, the worse time to be in local government.

Successive governments have continued to tow local counterparts up the creek whilst carving away at the boat as well as the paddle. They have removed the main ways through which local government can sustain itself in future by adopting blanket policies designed to punish those overexposed to commercial development, but with the unintended consequence of undermining effective investment strategies in other places and casting more local authorities into a state of ever-closer bankruptcy.

Council services are under threat as the burden of adult social care, green measures and greater monetary regulation impacts the books in a period of inflationary pressure. Time and time again local government steps up to the plate to bring forward solutions, but is restricted by a government unwilling to let go without addressing the issues head on themselves.

The lack of trust, combined with the realities of local government finances paints a rather gloomy picture, indeed.

For what it is worth, I have pinpointed some methods through which I believe local government can – slowly but surely – improve its reputation and communicate better with its residents.

Front up to the challenges we face.
We need to be honest about the challenges we face and the root causes of them. Tell people the truth and do not skirt around issues to preserves one’s own rashers. I promise you, there’s no money, power or status in local government worth trading for the legacy you’ll create by committing yourself to the people and people only.

Don’t overcomplicate what’s already complicated.
Many of those in leadership positions – perhaps rather scarily – do not understand the complex web that is local government and its finances. To expect the public to comprehend this is a recipe for grave disappointment. Put information in a format and language people can understand. When you come to make decisions or meet to discuss important issues, create a one-pager that simplifies things for time-poor residents.

Communicate using modern methods.
People fear what they do not know and do not understand. It is your job in local government to present the facts and offer solutions to the common problems we face. Posting that on your website is not going to cut it. Harvest data and offer more emails, push out weekly news and text alerts alongside social media updates from those in leadership positions. People buy people, don’t communicate through the faceless corporate veil: again, front up.

Be visible to those who deserve your time.
Virtually no one – no matter how much it might bruise the ego – listens to your council meetings. And I really do mean virtually no one. Therefore, it is futile in this mission to build trust and confidence to be delivering through action without a carefully crafted communications plan to tell people what progress is being made. More importantly than all of this is a commitment you should make to get down onto the ground and speak to people at regular intervals: being a councillor is not a pass to be lazy and assume you know what your residents think.

Work together.
Perhaps the simplest thing to say, but most complex to get right. However, unless local authorities work together in partnership, government is not going to listen. That is why we need strategic groupings (from formal unitary arrangements to more informal economic boards). These can be issue or place based, but the important constituent part is consistency of messaging and applied pressure in the right places. Don’t be overambitious, or you’ll waste precious time and resources. Take things step by step, give and take the little wins.

For those tasked with delivering council services, there is no easy option or silver bullet. We live in an age of increasing and disproportionate regulation, weak politicians of all parties in Westminster, and a general public who are more empowered and opinionated than ever.

At all times remember this: whether you are in central or local government; Conservative or Labour; elected or campaigning; or otherwise; the public do not discriminate or distinguish. We all have responsibility to build trust in the system.

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