Over the last 10 years England has taken steps towards the transfer of power from central government to local and combined authorities through a series of so-called devolution deals.
As evidenced in research published by Ipsos Mori, the New Local Government Network and PwC in 20151, among the general public there is broad support for powers being devolved to local government, though very limited awareness or understanding of what this means in practice. The concept of ‘communicating devolution’ – what it means for local policy makers, for those delivering local public services, for local businesses and for constituents – is relatively new for the UK, though a much more established concept internationally, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighting comparatively higher levels of fiscal decentralisation across the world.2
A directly elected West Yorkshire mayor was announced in March 2020, the first in two years, with the Government signing a new £1.8bn devolution deal amid plans to ‘level up’ the UK economy. This comes in advance of an expected Devolution White Paper later in 2020 which will provide a framework ‘so that every part of our country has the power to shape its’ own destiny’, as per the Conservative manifesto. With devolution seen as an opportunity to attract inward investment and revitalise local economies, there will be an increased need to illustrate the added value the devolution can bring to a region, and for newly devolved entities this means recognising and leveraging communication as a key function for engaging with their different stakeholder audiences.
With devolution will come a need to communicate on how devolved powers are being used to direct investment, planning and public service delivery; to promote public awareness of the work of devolved institutions (independently of their member local authorities), and specifically the impact and value of devolution. This is often achieved through a combination of internally-focused change and transformation communications, and externally-focussed communication to raise awareness (e.g. of economic development and regeneration), manage reputation and potentially to drive behaviour change among members of the public and businesses.
Driven by advances in technology, changes in media consumption patterns and communications preferences, there is now an increasing expectation for a personalised, multi-channel, always-on communications approach.
In a context of further future regional devolution, advances in technology, changes in media consumption patterns and communications preferences, the Local Government Association (LGA) commissioned Newgate Research to undertake a focused piece of qualitative research to understand lessons learned in communicating devolution. This research involved a scoping review of relevant literature, interviews with the Head of Communication (or equivalent) in eight combined authorities as well as interviews with four strategic stakeholders with expertise in local government communications. Through this work we have identified the opportunities for communicators working within or for devolved areas, as well as some key principles to consider.
The LGA offers communications support to its member councils, including combined authorities, ranging from bespoke communications reviews and support through to maintaining resource portals such as Comms Hub and #FutureComms. The LGA also convenes a communications network for combined authority members several times a year, where communications leads meet to discuss challenges, learnings and opportunities for collaboration.
Note that research undertaken to inform this resource was created just before the 2019/2020 COVID-19 outbreak reached the UK. The outbreak and subsequent response has created significant additional challenges to the work of combined authorities and wider devolution work, which are not addressed here. This will be an area for future focus, as the role of devolved areas in managing their response unfolds and the impact that this has on future devolution deals becomes clear.
Summary and implications
In the context of further future regional devolution enabling newly established authorities to generate investment and opportunities at a regional level, communications and engagement has a key supporting role to play at a local, national and international level. While there will be challenges - notably relating to the resources, remits and operations of teams in newly established organisations - these can be overcome through a commitment to collaboration and working toward a shared vision and mutually beneficial outcomes.
Through conversations with stakeholders, there were a number of areas of opportunity identified, with examples of ‘bright spots’: those actions and activities which have proven to be successful for organisations at different stages of their devolution journey. These included:
- A commitment to partnership working. Ensuring that both senior leadership and communications teams invest time and resource in developing strong relationships and partnership working arrangements with councillors and council staff (including communications counterparts in constituent member authorities). This includes recognising and supporting the priorities of these different authorities and stakeholders where these align with the aims of the devolved area. Greater Manchester was cited as a good example of partnership working, with relationships fostered with concerted efforts between authorities across the region.
- Recognising the value of strategic communications. The most effective communications are strategically planned and delivered, aligned in timing and tone with clear organisational goals. Direct lines of communication between the Head of Communications and the Chief Executive and/or Senior Management Team (SMT) are key in ensuring issues on the horizon can be foreseen and prepared for. Tactical communications will only get an organisation so far.
- Establishing and leveraging a shared identity. To deliver effective citizen-focused communications in newly devolved areas it is critical to understand the different identities that already exist and, where necessary, to build a shared identity that binds people within a region. An example of this is the use of unifying language and branding in communications, such as the ‘Enjoy Tees Valley’ Hollywood-sign campaign supported by the Tees Valley Mayor and his identifying with ‘the Tees Valley’ rather than any individual area. Similar emphasis is needed on internal communications to ensure that the primary advocates for the devolved authority – an authority’s staff – are also aligned under one identity and one banner.
- Keeping communications relevant and relatable. Lessons from combined authorities suggest that most of the citizens care little about civil governance structures, and more about the performance of services that impact on their daily lives, or flagship projects which impact on their sense of belonging and pride in an area. Focusing on these aspects helps to convey how devolution has added value to a region.
- Leveraging the Mayoral profile. Devolved authorities can benefit from having a key spokesperson or figurehead such as the Mayor who can act as a proxy for the wider authority, using their public profile and personal communication channels to enhance coverage of authority-wide causes. The Mayor of London is one such example of a figurehead who has managed this effectively for the benefit of the city as a whole.
- Active dialogue with the public and businesses. A key trend in recent years has been the increase in active, two-way dialogue with members of the public around policy decisions. This could be through traditional citizens juries through to innovative online and offline activity such as that used in Barcelona’s municipal planning. This builds on existing structures for business engagement and helps ensure that people feel heard and that their priorities are accounted for in the design, delivery and communication of services and policies.
- Think strategically and plan ahead. The remit of the communications team in a devolved authority is wide-ranging, changeable and significantly different from that of a traditional local authority. Ensuring that the communications team is able to draw on multi-disciplinary expertise (including creative and digital skills, public engagement and crisis management) can help promote greater resilience and flexibility to meet the needs placed on communications professionals within a devolved authority.
As the national membership body for local authorities the LGA has developed a range of resources to support existing and newly devolved authorities, including communications-specific case studies and guidance to help members to communicate devolution, as well as practical support including communications reviews. More information on the LGA’s communications support and improvement offer can be found on the LGA website.