Liz Aelberry, Head of Communications at Basildon Borough Council, explains how the council worked with the LGA to develop a new narrative, which has become the foundation for council communication activity and content.
Home to 189,000 residents, who mainly live and work in the new town of Basildon, the borough is made up of four other distinct towns, Laindon, Wickford, Pitsea and Billericay.
Some of the largest manufacturing employers in the country (Ford UK, Leonardo, Konika Minolta and Case New Holland, for example) have also based themselves in the borough. Approximately 65 per cent of the land in the borough sits in the green belt.
Like all councils, Basildon has issues to address. There are stark inequalities in health and skills, and, in terms of deprivation, Basildon is ranked 111 out of 317 local authorities (the third most deprived district in Essex). The deprivation gap within the borough is substantial and has not improved since 2015; 11 per cent of the borough’s residents continue to live in England’s 10 per cent most deprived places and 14 per cent of residents in England’s 10 per cent wealthiest.
Elections are held in thirds, which has historically delivered a changeable administration, with understandably different and competing ideologies and priorities to tackle change.
Setting and fulfilling priorities has been a challenge for the council during each period of change and this was recognised by the LGA when it visited to complete a corporate peer challenge in September 2021.
The LGA recommended the implementation of an organisational narrative to help maintain the golden thread throughout the organisation. However, in a changing political environment, this proved to be a challenge.
Developing and implementing a narrative was not a new concept for Basildon Borough Council. It had already started a project called ‘Our Place’ initiated by the previous administration. Research was undertaken (with residents, businesses, employees of the council and councillors) designed to inform the consultants producing the narrative. In addition to this research, the consultants planned their own focus groups and obtained additional qualitive data. Then two things happened:
- The first was the global pandemic, which set the project back significantly. COVID-19 stopped the important engagement process that is critical to the development of a narrative. While a narrative must ring true for those in the organisation; it is also meaningless if it does not ring true for those around the organisation.
- The second was a change in political administration; following the pandemic, the council held the delayed elections and political control of the council changed once again. This meant a complete change in the dynamics of the council and a different philosophy around narrative.
Following Basildon Council’s peer review in September 2021, the LGA’s first recommendation was to:
Develop a compelling narrative for the future of Basildon. Something that is simple and memorable for staff, members, residents and stakeholders.
With funding to assist with the development of the narrative, the LGA appointed two experienced associates to help with this.
The LGA took a very different approach to previous consultants. Rather than put Basildon into an established narrative, the associates took the time to really understand the borough. This meant visiting the place that they were writing about. Their aim was to establish a narrative for the place and the people who live and work in the borough. For me, as Head of Communications, this was critical. I can give lots of statistics, on the skills gap in the borough and the health inequalities, but actually seeing our estates, as well as the physical parameters of the New Town, provides real context.
Basildon is known nationally for its strong manufacturing industries. It forms a key part of our narrative. But it is also a very green borough as highlighted in the introduction and this causes several local political issues, which included leading to the withdrawal of the local plan. It is difficult to conceptualise these geographical areas.
With this fresh insight, the associates produced a draft of a narrative that was 80 per cent of how we perceive Basildon Council. With helpful feedback from the chief executive the associates came back with a narrative that fitted with the vision of the senior leadership team.
Our narrative is part of all our communications materials. This ranges from our residents’ magazine to the Chief Executive’s LinkedIn posts. It is so important to us that it features in our guide to writing funding bids, it is also included in our application and recruitment packs and it is the basis of our marketing material for future developers and businesses.
Councils are multi-million-pound organisations; they are social landlords, developers and leisure providers. They run theatres, collect tax, support businesses and provide essential services. Councils employ highly qualified professionals from a huge variety of specialisms, who would never mix in any other business. So, it is no wonder that our voice can become a little lost. Our narrative pulls us back to remind us of what we stand for and what we want to deliver for the residents of Basildon.
For more information, please contact Liz Aelberry, Head of Communications, Basildon Borough Council: [email protected]