Public sector communications excellence awards bronze winner: With Hackney experiencing unprecedented change over the past decade, the council had to make sure that its corporate narrative moved with the times and reflected the realities of its communities. Polly Cziok, Director of Communications, Culture and Engagement explains how the organisation involved residents, partners in staff in developing a corporate narrative fit for everyone. This case study forms part of our corporate narrative resource.
In many ways, Hackney’s corporate story can be divided into a number of distinct chapters. Fifteen years ago we were talking about the need to address the significant challenges facing the council and our local area. Hackney was the worst council in the country and had a reputation to match. Fast forward a few years and we are delivering great services, and were one of the five host boroughs for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Olympic and Paralympic Games brought significant investment, change and opportunity to our local areas and communities. While that had many positive benefits, it also served to accelerate the social and economic change that was already happening.
The Olympics is often cited as a cause of ‘gentrification’, but in reality it was the transformation in schools, transport and public infrastructure that pushed Hackney’s house price increases even beyond the rest of the London property boom. Hackney was becoming somewhere that many people did not recognise. We thought that whilst residents saw the positive benefits of change, many people felt threatened or excluded by aspects of it. As a council, we needed to make sure we fully understood the way people were feeling and responding to change. We needed to find a way of explaining that the ambitions of the council were still focused on equality, fairness and inclusivity. Our story needed to be repositioned so it was clear that we wanted Hackney as a place, and Hackney as a council, to work for everyone.
We began by sitting down with the then Mayor to discuss his priorities. Council communication teams have a responsibility to make sure their corporate narrative is the organisational expression of political ambition, so we had to start by having that conversation with the political leadership about the story we wanted to tell. We were about to write a new corporate plan, which presented a good opportunity to present a new narrative, and we had an in-depth discussion at a Cabinet/Senior management away day about how we should be expressing our response to the challenges ahead.
‘Tackling inequality’ had always been a top priority for the Mayor, but we wanted to add something about making sure the economic growth in Hackney could benefit everyone – through jobs and opportunity. We distilled that ambition into a simple but impactful strapline: ‘Hackney: A Place for Everyone’. We used this to explain how we wanted to address inequalities in the borough. It was a message that challenged the negative preconceptions about gentrification, but still highlighted that we were a place, and an authority, keen to support growth, attract investment and widen our visitor economy. Our strapline explained in clear and simple words that we were embracing change, but in the context of it enabling us to deliver a fairer, more equal borough.
The corporate plan 2014-18 was the first place we tested out the ‘Place for Everyone’ narrative, but we brought it to life through resident engagement. In 2015, we launched a large scale open engagement programme to find out what local people thought and felt about life in the borough. We distributed paper surveys to every home, and commandeered a black taxi (the Hackney Cab) which we turned into a video booth so we could drive around the borough asking residents and visitors what they thought about change and gentrification, and how it had impacted on their lives. The scale of the exercise – around 5,000 people participated in different ways – meant we secured a huge amount of qualitative data, which we were then able to use to help shape our organisational strategy and underpin policy development. It also demonstrated to residents in a very active, visual and fun way that as an organisation we cared about their views and wanted to actively collect them – rather than waiting for them to come to us and take part in town hall meetings or more formal consultation exercises.
We also ran a more targeted programme of events for staff to engage them. Around 35 per cent of our employees are also residents, so it was important that they understood what our ambitions for the area were, but we wanted to nuance the messaging so we were clearly explaining how we wanted staff to work to help us to achieve that overarching objective. For years staff have heard about financial cuts and doing more for less, but that is no longer a message that resonates with people. We needed to explain what sort of an organisation they would now be working for, so we rolled out a programme of chief executive to set out the ambitions. We kept the language in line with our external messaging and called this work ‘Change for Everyone’, mirroring messages across our internal platforms and encouraging employees to send us their ideas of how they were planning to change their behaviours or ways of working to help us to become a place for everyone. Since then, ‘Change for Everyone’ has become a full scale organisational and culture change programme, addressing everything from recruitment and retention, to developing organisational values.
The reaction from residents and employees to the ‘Place for Everyone’ programme was very positive. We received more than 3,000 responses to our resident questionnaire, and another 2,000 people took part through focus groups, events, by using the video taxi, or taking part in Ipsos MORI face-to face research. Anecdotally people told us how much they had enjoyed the interactive, light hearted elements of the video taxi, and the footage has been used in staff and partner communications. Every single member of our staff attended the chief executive’s ‘Change for Everyone’ roadshows, which allowed us to make sure that everyone was a part of this new way of working. The ‘Place for Everyone’ brand has been shared with service areas and they have been supported to localise if for their own areas, so it has become part of the language we use to talk about our services, our ways of working and our ambitions for Hackney as a place. The findings from engagement have shaped the development of our new ten-year community strategy.
Why it worked and how we are sustaining it
Our ‘Place for Everyone’ narrative has worked because it articulates both the political ambitions of our leadership, and how we as an organisation plan to deliver those ambitions. It is easy to remember for residents, partners and stakeholders but encapsulates exactly what our politicians want to achieve for the council and the borough, meaning they are fully supportive of it. It has provided us with a model for engagement which has shaped the way we gather and use resident insight to develop policy. This year we carried out a major engagement exercise called ‘Schools for Everyone’, in which 2,000 people took part, and will help us shape education policy in the borough, as well as our response the central government schools agenda.
Since we launched ‘Place for Everyone’, Hackney has had its first change of political leadership in 15 years and we have a new Mayor, who has been very supportive. We have been able to achieve a continuity of narrative and messaging, albeit with a very different leadership style and some new priorities.
As we approach 2018 – a new four year political cycle – and a new corporate plan, we will need to revisit our corporate narrative, and create something fresh to reflect the new manifesto which we will be working to deliver. However, the core values and messaging of ‘Place for Everyone’ will remain as they are underpinned by proper, thorough, inclusive, research, insight and engagement.
‘Place for Everyone’ taught us that the divisions we put up between ‘communications’, ‘consultation’ and ‘engagement’ are restrictive and ultimately meaningless. This was a borough wide project that and shaped the future story and strategy of the organisation. It was led by the communications and consultation service, but involved the whole organisation.
The black cab idea came from a staff member after a brainstorming session about creative engagement methods. It was fun, creative, and gave a focal point to the engagement campaign.
Want to know more?
For more information please contact Polly Cziok, Director of Communications, Culture and Engagement at London Borough of Hackney.