Local Government Shift: Smaller Budget, Big Opportunity

At November’s UK annual digital communications event in London, speaker Carl Haggerty offered his insights (and delightful illustrations) about the the state of local government communicationscarl haggerty

Carl, a Digital Communications Manager for the Devon City Council, started off by noting that local governments have taken on massive amounts of debt and are being forced to operate on continuously reduced budgets. But, he says, “We can tell our story about the challenge of massive debt, but that doesn’t stop someone having a social care need, or the need for public transport, or wanting to feel safe walking down the street”. Even though many local governments are in the position of having to reduce their budgets by roughly 150 million pounds over the next three years, their citizens’ needs still haven’t changed. While this may lead some people to have the perception that local government agencies are in dire straits, Carl believes the situation actually provides a big opportunity for communication professionals.

The challenge for organisations, he says, is to shift responsibility onto citizens by providing encouragement and guidance for seeking out community solutions to their needs instead of defaulting to local authorities. For example, rather than immediately contacting local government agencies about a snowed-in road, a person might first seek help from their neighbors by asking if anyone has a snow-blower they could borrow. Local governments could facilitate this engagement by providing a form on their website that allows users to easily request help from their community. There are, of course, some needs that only government services can address, but communication professionals are in a unique position to help reduce the burden on local governments by providing that facilitation.

To do this effectively, Carl argues, local governments need to focus on prevention, managing demand, and fostering behavior change. If agencies use a prevention approach, it will help make demand for services more manageable in the long term. By preparing twenty and thirty year old citizens today, they’ll be less dependent on government services when they turn sixty and seventy. Agencies also need to promote a large-scale behavior change by redefining their relationship with citizens and helping to create a new social contract within the community, where citizens feel that it’s okay to ask for help and offer help within the community, rather than depending solely on local government. By stepping back a little and allowing this community supported environment to grow on its own, what will remain is the need for a local government safety net only.

Despite this massive shift, communication professionals still have a responsibility to ensure that people have access to good information and good advice. To do this, Carl said,

There’s a shift for us to think about how we really focus on user needs, not just assuming that someone turns up on a council’s home page and then starts there and navigates through some kind of glorious organizational structure. But actually it’s about putting the user first and the organization is kind of irrelevant in that point. If we have a role to play to provide public information we should do it. If we have a role to provide a service we should do it. And if we have a clear role to provide information and advice that help people find services in their local community we should do it.

Additionally, Carl said, it’s essential that government makes sure that people not only have access to the technology that will make it possible for them to find this information, but they also must ensure that people understand why being educated about that technology is important. In order for this community sourced approach to work, citizens need to be able to easily connect across communities, and it’s the government’s responsibility to provide the infrastructure for this. Once governments have provided these capabilities, they then have to ask whether or not their citizens are actively participating in digital connectivity and using the internet in a way that helps improve their lives, and if they aren’t, how can the government help educate people about why they should?

Carl wrapped up his presentation with this insight: “The global outcomes of all this are that we should be generally improving people’s lives and contributing to a climate where growth and well-being is something that we all work towards. We have to ask ourselves, if we’re not adding value as communications professionals, what are we doing?”

To view his full presentation check out the video here.

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