There is no doubt that devolution and combined authorities will change the way councils communicate. Many good councils have already moved to a partnership model of delivering effective communications, working closely with both public sector and private sector partners. However, working as part of a devolved authority will require even greater changes – possibly even moving as far as creating public sector communications hubs for place.
So that you can deliver your combined authority's vision for a better place to live, effective communications will need to play a leading role in informing, engaging and involving residents, businesses and partners.
We know already that there is a gap currently between the importance and far-reaching impact of devolution and local people's awareness and understanding of what it means to them, why it matters and how they can have a say.
You also need to be ready and able to engage and influence key local people - everyone from popular local bloggers to government ministers. Devolution is still an emerging idea but you need to be planning your communications now.
Devolution will also have an impact on your staff and they need to be informed and involved as much as residents – in fact, in many cases, they are your residents.
The key to delivering successful, strategic communications is that it needs to be led not just by communications professionals, but also by a council's political and managerial leadership. This will ensure that it is led at the top of the organisation and is seen as a corporate priority.
The old ‘channel management' way of doing things (sending out press releases, leaflets and tweets) do not work and certainly won't work in a new combined authority world. Without a strategic approach to communications and focus on working with your partners, residents will not recognise the benefits of devolution.
To do this you need an effective communications strategy - created collaboratively, shared and managed across the partnership. This is a must to drive focussed, organised and effective communications.
The principles of good communications planning hold for devolution:
An authentic corporate narrative - What do you want to be famous for?
The starting point is an authentic corporate narrative. What your organisation stands for or put another way – what do you want to be famous for? A plainly written and compelling story, which explains what devolution is and how it will benefit local people, should drive your communications strategy, and how the combined authority and its leaders communicate and behave.
This narrative will begin the work of establishing the combined authority brand and will demonstrate to its stakeholders and partners what they should expect from the organisation. It will explain to combined authority staff and their colleagues across the partnership what devolution means for them and local people's expectations of them.
You need to influence, persuade and build alliances with important people from inside and outside the area, from potential inward investors to government decision-makers, and from public sector partners to community groups. So your story needs to be as much about the great future of the place your serve as the institution of the combined authority.
It's important to recognise that a brand is not a logo. Work on the combined authority's branding and visual identity may follow from this, but it follows on from the thinking and is not in itself the first thing you should work on.
Getting to know the people you want to inform, persuade and engage
The starting point for developing your strategy, narrative and approach is insight and research. You need to understand the needs and motivations of the people you want to have a conversation with and get involved. This will help you make the right decisions about how, when and where you communicate.
Research will tell you who your audiences are, where they live, what content they enjoy and where they find it, and what they think or know about your plans.
But insight work will give you a more complete understanding of what motivates people and why they behave in the way they do, and what may persuade them to change that behaviour.
Devolution is local, and so your research and insight should be local. It does not have to be expensive; listening to and taking part in local conversations on social media, and debating/discussing issues face-to-face with people can be cost effective ways of understanding what drives the people you want to engage with and be engaged. Many councils have access to detailed local profiling which can be a valuable tool in developing your local insight.
There is also an increasing body of research on devolution carried out in the regions and nationally. This cannot replace proper local research but can give you some evidence to help steer your strategy.
The following questions are a good starting point:
- What do people know about your devolution bid?
- Do they know how it will benefit them?
- Do they want a say or get involved?
- What are their priorities for improving the local area and local lives?
- Do they have an opinion, positive or not, about elected mayors?
- What are the positions and concerns of key influencers?
Strategic communications objectives
A strategy isn't strategic unless it has a clear SMART objective or objectives linked explicitly to what your organisation is trying to achieve.
Your objectives need to be about outcomes (what difference do we want to make) not outputs (what have we done) or outtakes (what have people taken from our communications), although the latter two are both steps along the road to achieving your outcomes. Objectives need to be precise enough to allow you to monitor and measure them so you can evaluate the effectiveness of your communications. Smart evaluation during your campaigns will help you adjust your course if things are not working entirely. Evaluation at the end will give you strong evidence to help you engage across your organisation and show you how to improve what you do the next time.
As your devolution plans adapt, develop and mature so will your communications objectives. You may have different objectives for the different audiences you have to inform, all leading to a shared set of tangible outcomes for the devolution project. Initially, you may think your objectives relate to reputation, influence and building relationships/alliances as you seek to establish support locally and nationally. You will also start developing policies and want to ensure key stakeholders are genuinely involved in decisions that will affect their lives or organisations. At the same time what do you need to do to establish the idea of an elected mayor and encourage people to get out and vote?
Getting your objectives right at the start gives you something you can later measure to evaluate the performance of your communications.
Getting your strategy right
As a senior leader in local government you will know about complexity, about the challenges of working in partnership, about understanding, informing and influencing a range of different people and groups.
This insight and experience will be important when deciding on the key elements of your devolution communications strategy.
But devolution brings its own demands and challenges too and in putting together your strategy you must understand these and how this new way of running areas will affect your residents, partners, businesses and key influencers.
Ask yourself some key questions and think through what communications approach is best; your research and insight is important here to provide evidence on which you can basis your thinking.
- How will we overcome lack of awareness and understanding of devolution locally (if that is the case)?
- What are the likely objections to a new tier of government and how can we overcome them?
- How can we explain to residents the benefits of an elected mayor?
- How do we create conversations with businesses about their needs and the benefits to them of devolution, for example, growth and transport?
- Who are the people we need to influence and how do we do that?
Putting your communications into action
All this smart thinking allows you to produce a strategy. However, you will also need a good delivery plan that co-ordinates and manages the tactics and channels you will deploy to deliver your objectives and ultimately the combined authority's vision.
The modern communications toolbox offers a range of approaches and it is very likely with such a complex issue as devolution that the most effective approach will integrate a number of different but complementary tactics.
Your organisation's choice of tactics should be driven at all times by your research and insight. Be digital by default but remember too that different audiences may demand different tactics.
Devolution is about partnership and integration, so share the development of your plan with your partners and ensure it is integrated with their communications programmes. Simple shared grids and timelines can avoid duplication and avoid damaging clashes of conflicting events.
Identifying and allocating resources will be an important part of your implementation plan. This include agreeing with our partners what resources they can allocate to the project.
Agreeing priorities for your organisation is vital because you will never have enough people or money to do everything.
Priorities are driven partly by opportunities and risks, and your delivery plan should include a communications risk register and timelines that identifies the potential reputation risks for your organisation and the mitigating actions you will take at the right time to minimise those risks.
Evaluating your impact
Communications will make a difference, but you must be able to measure this difference and demonstrate how well your communications have performed.
This is never more important than with a new way of working such as devolution that needs to establish its position and needs to persuade a number of partners to a new approach.
Your devolution communications objectives provide the framework for your selection of metrics to measure how well you have done in terms of outputs, outtakes and outcomes.
Experience shows that a mixture of qualitative and quantitative approaches tends to give you a strong and credible set of results.
Be honest in your evaluation. If something has not worked then say so, but learn from it and apply your learning in the next campaign cycle.
Giving partners and residents a voice
Local government has been leading the bidding for devolution deals across the country. There has been a lot of hard work to gain agreement across groups of councils on the why, what and how of devolution.
Individual councils quite rightly have wanted a voice and to represent the interests of their residents. Ensuring that there continues to be cohesion among the local council partners is vital.
How to ensure that individual councils have a voice and that information is shared effectively between councils should be part of your combined authority's communications strategy and delivery plan. Relying on formal business meetings and the occasional e-newsletter will not be enough.
Equally, you must consider how the wider partnership of public bodies, the business community and the voluntary sector can be informed, involved and genuinely engaged in the process of delivering the benefits of devolution.
Devolution is about local accountability and the views and concerns of residents must be heard by your combined authority in making its decisions and developing its policies. Continuing research and insight work is part of this, as is formal consultation and engagement arrangements – but have you thought too about how you can set up modern scrutiny arrangements so that the public and its representatives can hold the combined authority to account?
Listening to and involving your staff
Council staff working in a combined authority area will be delivering the transformation you are planning as well as being affected by it as employees.
You should ask yourself how much they know about your devolution plans, what they think about them and what their worries are. Research proves that engaged employees are more enthusiastic and more productive, and more willing to be advocates for their organisation. Effective employee engagement is driven by four interrelated elements:
- Visible and communicative leaders that tell a compelling story about where the organisation is headed.
- Engaging managers who support their teams and give individuals the freedom to succeed.
- Employees who feel free to speak up, have many different kinds of opportunities to have their say and are listened to by their managers.
- An explicit set of organisational values that are show by the behaviour of leaders to be more than a poster on the wall.