East Sussex County Council – engaging new councillors

With a number of new frontline councillors taking office after the county elections, East Sussex wanted to finds a way to engage them in their new roles while explaining the structure of local government. Warwick Smith, Head of Communications and Marketing, explains what they did.

Communications support

We are fortunate in East Sussex that our councillors come from a range of different backgrounds and life experiences. While this is fantastic for representing our communities and bringing diversity to our organisation, it can mean that when new councillors take office they don’t all necessarily start with a detailed knowledge of the structure of local government or a full understanding of its complexities. We wanted to find a way to help everyone understand the fundamentals of how councils work right from the very start. Importantly, we also wanted to do this in a way that was eye-catching and engaging so that we could make the most of the enthusiasm that all our new councillors bring to their new positions.

The plan

Creating something engaging was a key objective for us, so we knew we had to communicate our messages through something more interesting than PowerPoint. All our new councillors go through induction days when they first join, which takes place at County Hall. It’s a great opportunity to communicate with everyone in one go so we also had to take into consideration that format and think of something that would get our messages across at a large face-to-face event.

We decided to create a series of videos that could be screened at the induction days. We had already used video as part of our recruitment process to attract new councillors and it had proved to be an effective channel so we decided to use it again. We felt that video would lend itself well to the induction format and would offer something different to the other presentations that they would hear over the course of the day.

Before we started any of the technical work we spent several weeks planning exactly what we wanted our key messages to be. I worked closely with the Head of Member Services to understand the priority messages for the council as well as deepen my understanding of exactly what structure, governance and scrutiny issues we needed councillors to be aware of from their first day. It’s a fine balance between emphasising the important messages and overwhelming people with excessive detail so we made sure that we invested plenty of time in the planning phase so that by the time we were creating the video script we knew exactly what our key messages should be.  

We decided to create one video focused on explaining how decision making at the council works, exploring the structure of the cabinet, full council and scrutiny system as well as the relationship between officers and members. We also agreed to make a video specifically focused on financial issues to help new councillors understand, for example, the difference between revenue and capital spending, the financial decision-making cycle and the role that they would play in making these decisions.

These areas are not only the ones most crucial for helping councillors to ‘hit the ground running’ they are also the areas where people can sometimes be unclear about the level of responsibility they will personally have. We wanted new councillors to appreciate that when they first join the council their real power likely lies in influencing decisions and strengthening their understanding of the issues affecting the organisation and their communities rather than immediately implementing their own policies.

The execution

We wanted to use animation in our videos as we felt that it would be more visual and engaging than a talking head format. We used an online tool called VideoScribe to create the visuals. It’s an online tool that allows you to simulate whiteboard animation without the need for hiring an illustrator or buying lots of complicated software. Our in-house design team were able to use the platform to create the images and transitions. They sourced free music and audio effects and used iMovie to synch the sound with the visual story.  I created the script (with support from key figures across the organisation).

We decided to hire a professional voice over artist to create a professional and upbeat tone for the videos and then we screened them both at the new councillor induction sessions. We are also promoting the videos on the intranet landing page for members so that councillors can watch them after the induction day or refer back to them in the future.

The impact

The response from councillors in the room was extremely positive with many telling us how much they had enjoyed it. We also received a positive reception from colleagues across the organisation who felt that we had done a good job in articulating some of the more complicated aspects of local government business in a quick and accessible way. We will be asking about the videos as part of the one-to-one discussion we’ll be doing with members at the end of their induction process so we hope that that will provide us with some more feedback to build on in the future.

Why it worked

The success of the videos lay in the fact that they were visually engaging, moved at pace and focused on a number of specific key messages rather than bombarding people with lots of detail. We pitched the videos at a level that was accessible for people just entering local government as well as those who might already have some understanding. Getting the tone right was absolutely critical as we didn’t want to patronise people or leave gaps in anyone’s understanding so investing time in working closely with colleagues across the organisation really helped us to avoid those pitfalls. The animation style of storytelling also allowed us to combine words and pictures to tell the story of East Sussex council which would have been really difficult to replicate in a verbal presentation alone.

Lessons learned

Although VideoScribe provided us with lots of pre-loaded characters we discovered that we still didn’t have enough for the number of people we needed to depict. This meant we had to employ an illustrator to create some new characters we could add in. This strengthened the video and was the right decision but it did present us with an additional cost that we hadn’t factored in from the start.

If I were to do this project again I would also build in more time for the script sign off process. Although we clearly explained the governance and sign off processes in our video we didn’t necessarily take into account our own advice! The approval process for the script took much longer than anticipated. We also had to make some small changes to the videos right at the last minute, which meant some parts of the voiceover had to be redone. Allowing sufficient time for all your internal stakeholders to approve the content is vital.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Warwick Smith, Head of Communications and Marketing at East Sussex County Council.