Oxfordshire County Council – evolving the corporate narrative

With an ambitious transformation plan, a refreshed set of corporate values and a desire to move away from messages about financial cuts, Oxfordshire County Council needed to evolve their corporate narrative to reflect their new direction. This case study forms part of our corporate narrative resource.

Communications support

The council also needed to make sure that any story would resonate with its communities, employees and partners. Marketing and Consultation Manager Carole Stow explains how the council combined insight, data and their new ways of working to develop a narrative fit for the future.

The challenge

Over the past year we have been developing a new service transformation plan for Oxfordshire County Council, which places a greater emphasis on changing the way we deliver our services to ensure they meet the needs of all our residents. Our service transformation plan moves away from the language of cuts and efficiency savings that has dominated the past few years, and instead focuses on adapting the way we do things so we can deliver more effective services.

Although we already had a corporate narrative in place, which was known as a ‘thriving Oxfordshire’ we knew we needed to evolve our story to reflect this new direction and explain to our communities how we would be working. A recent LGA peer review highlighted the need to develop a stronger narrative and make it the focus of communication activity.

We had also been hearing throughout our discussions with local residents during Oxfordshire’s wider unitary debate that people didn’t fully understand the role of the council, and had trouble reconciling our ‘thriving’ message with our messages about the need to make cuts to our budget. We knew that this should include a stronger focus on engaging communities. We also needed to develop a story that would resonate with staff and explain what this new way of working would mean for them, and what values we needed them to adopt to make it a success.  

The solution

We decided to start internally as we knew that our staff would be vitally important for shaping any new narrative and promoting it to the residents and stakeholders that they encountered through their own jobs. The communications team worked with colleagues in policy to develop a discussion document which we called ‘how the council is changing’. It set out our new values and explained how they related to the new operating framework we had introduced across the organisation. The document explained how we wanted to work and why we had decided to focus on commissioning more services rather than delivering them ourselves. The document detailed how this new way of working was about transforming services so that we could protect vulnerable people and enable communities to flourish – themes that were central to our previous ‘thriving Oxfordshire’ story. With the backing of our cabinet and corporate leadership we shared the document with line managers across the council and encouraged them to discuss it with their teams to help them to understand how all of our different pockets of activity were connected and focused on directly helping our residents. We also encouraged them to feedback any suggestions about how we could make all of this clearer for residents. The clear feedback from staff was that a community focus was widely understood and liked.

Alongside this piece of work we commissioned an agency to help us conduct some more concentrated research with our residents and test out our new values with them. We ran eight focus groups, segmented by location, and asked them a series of questions about what they understood about our work, what they thought about the council and what they understood about the challenges that we were facing.

The impact

Both activities were enormously useful but our resident focus groups yielded some particularly interesting results. It became clear from the discussions that people wanted our corporate narrative to place a more explicit emphasis on the communities that exist within Oxfordshire, rather than the broader definition our previous story has used. We have lots of different communities within Oxfordshire and that is something that is very important to our residents. They wanted to know how we would be working for all the different people that live and work in Oxfordshire so we have adapted our core message so that it now says we aim to develop ‘thriving communities for everyone in Oxfordshire’.

We also discovered that both residents and staff liked the simplicity and active language of our ‘thriving communities’, ‘thriving people’ and ‘thriving economy’ values. In response to that feedback we replaced our previously lengthy ‘thriving Oxfordshire’ story with shorter, simpler sentences that summarised our priorities under each of these headings.

We have also placed greater emphasis on developing messages that explain our financial challenges as the economy theme was the one that residents’ reported as knowing the least about, but arguably being the most interested in. During the focus groups we showed participants an overview of our budget to challenge misconceptions about how we spend our money. Residents also said every forcefully that they wanted to know how their money was being spent!  We’re looking for ways to keep telling our financial story going forward, including a back-to-basics approach focus on Council Tax billing.

From a practical perspective this exercise has also provided us with a clearer framework for our PR activity. We are now designing and planning our stories in a way to not only engage our audiences, but also evidence our priorities much more clearly. Decisions about stories to push, angles to take and evaluation of the coverage/outtakes will be based on the narrative framework.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

Now we have all this insight we’re rolling out our new narrative, vision and operating framework across the organisation. We’re using Yammer to communicate our messages to employees and have created an ideas exchange where staff can make suggestions about the best ways to continue communicating the message to colleagues and stakeholders. We’ve also shared the story with all new councillors as part of their induction and have taken it to our performance and scrutiny committee and full cabinet who have both received it very positively. We’re also including questions in our rolling reputation tracker survey to monitor the effectiveness of our new narrative and how successfully residents are able to recognise it in our messages and campaigns.

Lessons learned

Never assume! We thought the use of the word “thriving” would the biggest barrier to our narrative when actually it was the word people most identified with, once it was more clearly explained. We could have damaged our story significantly if we had abandoned it. This experience also reinforced how important it is for us to link our story to outcomes and make sure we’re explaining our activities in plain English.

Involving an outside agency definitely helped us understand how others saw us definitely helped, and gave us a solid evidence base to develop the narrative in a way that worked for different parts of the organisation while keeping the views and expectations of residents firmly in mind.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Eddie Gibb, Head of Communications, Corporate Services, Oxfordshire County Council.