Category Archives: Public sector comms

Don’t blame the council – blame ITV

Updated 

Like many others I tuned in yesterday to watch ITV’s Don’t Blame the Council, billed as a ‘behind the scenes’ look at Wigan Council.

Back in October, when Wigan announced they were going to take part in a BBC documentary, Call The Council, I blogged about it and was hopeful that it would help shine a light on the real challenges faced by local authorities like Wigan. Maybe it would help ‘ordinary’ residents understand what the unprecedented cuts to budgets really mean for the services that many people take for granted.

At the time, Donna Hall, Chief Exec of Wigan Council, wrote a piece for the Guardian Public Leaders Network explaining why Wigan had decided to let the cameras in. She said:

“The last time there was industrial action, in Wigan we had to cancel our household waste collections. That went down like a contaminated bin at a recycling centre. Our social media accounts were inundated with questions from angry members of the public whose bins were not collected. Many asked: “When do I get a refund for the service you’ve not provided?”

This reaction told us one thing – an awful lot of council taxpayers appear to believe all we do is empty their bins.”

And she explained what she hoped the programme would achieve:

“I’d guess most of our residents wouldn’t be able to name more than 10 services we provide. In fact, Wigan council provides more than 700 services to 310,000 residents.

“Call the Council won’t be able to reflect all those services but it is going to show a rich mixture of our work. The film crews have only been with us for a few weeks but they have already followed our officers doing spot checks on taxi drivers, organising an Expo for small businesses, taking food samples from shops, dealing with illegal traveller sites and installing LED street lighting.”

I really admired Wigan Council for taking the brave step of letting the cameras in. Their aim was noble – highlighting the many and varied services that local government provides, and to demonstrate the tough decisions that councils all over the country are having to take.

Since then it seems that Wigan Council also permitted ITV to film with them for yesterday’s Don’t Blame The Council.

The BBC series is yet to be aired. But ITV’s effort was broadcast last night and left a bit of a sour taste.  Despite all the interesting and varied jobs that their Chief Exec described the BBC filming in the quote above, ITV’s hour long programme focused instead on… you guessed it… BINS.

Their portrayal of council staff was purposely negative – showing a sleeping bin lorry driver (legitimately on the break he is legally required to have maybe?); made the officer in charge of dog fouling and flytipping look over officious (despite the fact she was carrying out a very tough job that most members of the public, in my experience, support); poked fun at the stereotype of council workers always having meetings and generally being inept.

Not what I (or Wigan Council, I imagine) had hoped for.

And a missed opportunity I felt. Lazy, stereotyped fly on the wall nonsense that had no real intention of highlighting the very real issues and challenges facing local councils, but just wanted to follow a few ‘characters’ and have a bit of a laugh at their expense. 

The comments on Twitter were particularly depressing, with lots of ill-informed anti-council hate being posted. Early local media coverage hasn’t been much better. Not exactly what Donna Hall set out to achieve.

I feel for Wigan Council. They were brave enough to take this risk, and it hasn’t worked out as well as it could have. That is ITV’s fault for taking the easy, lazy approach.

A transmission date is yet to be confirmed for the BBC’s Call The Council series. Let’s hope for a more thorough, carefully considered programme from the Beeb. Perhaps they can put ITV to shame. But ITV’s treatment of this subject matter is bound to make other councils think twice about taking part in any future project as a result.

I would love to hear what other local government workers and communicators thought of the show – and I can’t wait to see how differently (hopefully) the BBC approach this issue. 

 

 

WhatsApp experiment shows we mustn’t be afraid to ‘fail’

A little while back I blogged about what I thought was quite an exciting trial that Shropshire Council were running, allowing residents to contact the council (and specific elected members) via WhatsApp.

It struck me as a brilliantly simple idea and I was really interested to see how their trial worked out.

The other day I did a little bit of twitter stalking to see if there was any news about the results – sure enough Lorna Perry, who was behind the trial at Shropshire, recently posted an update about how it went.

The results were – as Lorna says – a little disappointing, and a bit surprising really, I thought. Despite lots of publicity , the council leader only received eight messages during the four week trial, and the general enquiry number only seven.

Lorna puts that down partly to a certain amount of apathy in terms of contacting local councillors – and I suppose that has a part to play. Perhaps, as Lorna suggests, if the trial had taken place during a period when there was something particularly controversial going on in the area – am unpopular planning issue or something of that nature – then the uptake might have been higher – mind you perhaps the councillors who took part wouldn’t have been so keen to receive the kinds of messages that might have arrived on their mobiles!

However you’ve really got to admire the attitude that Shropshire – and it’s elected members – took on this one – a kind of “let’s just do it and see how it goes” attitude. It wasn’t going to cost anything and it might just have worked – they made it clear from the outset that if it didn’t work, it didn’t matter – no unrealistic expectations were raised, internally or externally. They kept it simple and didn’t invest either extortionate amounts of time or money on it – so they could afford to be bold and there was no major drama if it didn’t work out.

In these fast changing and austere times councils shouldn’t be afraid of trying something new – without making a huge industry out of deliberating the pros and cons – and if it doesn’t work out, be happy to say so and move on to try something new. What’s important is that we think, and act, innovatively.

Lorna does mention in her post that some of the other council services – such as those who work with parents and young people – are still interested in exploring the possibility of utilising WhatsApp, so the idea isn’t dead yet.

Well done Shropshire for trying something new. I wonder if any other councils will also give it a go – maybe to take feedback on very specific projects or proposals perhaps – and whether any will have more luck in doing so?

WhatsApp? I’d like to report some flytipping please…

Shropshire Council this week announced that they were going to start using WhatsApp as a way of communicating with residents.

Genius.

A brilliantly simple idea that had me thinking – ah, why didn’t we think of that?

Shropshire say they’re going to trial the service for four weeks and see how it goes. What I love is that residents can not only contact ‘the council’ on WhatsApp, they can also contact particular portfolio holders on the council’s Cabinet.

At a time when local authorities need to be thinking very seriously about channel shift, we need to make it as easy as possible for residents to communicate with us. It’s why we started using Facebook, Twitter and all the other social platforms – to be where the people are.

With 17 million users worldwide, lots of them are on WhatsApp.

It’s also a way that people can easily send ‘private’ messages to the council, or to the elected members that represent them, quickly, easily, for free, and without having to broadcast their message to the world via a Facebook comment or Tweet, if that isn’t what you want to do.

Maybe we might even encourage more of the ‘silent majority’ to communicate with us this way?

So, well done Shropshire Council. I’m really excited to hear about how you get on. And I’m sure that, if it works for you, many other councils will be following your lead very soon…

 

Can TV help prove councils are more than just bins?

A few weeks ago I was really interested to read that Wigan Council had agreed to be featured in the next series of the BBC’s Call the Council series, a fly on the wall documentary going ‘behind the scenes’ at a local authority.

Obviously I’m going to be particularly interested in this, as I work for a (different) local authority, and I actually live within the area covered by Wigan Council.

I also have some ideas of the conversations and considerations that will have gone on behind the scenes in deciding to take part in the programme.

This morning I was reading a piece on the Guardian online by Donna Hall, Chief Exec of Wigan Council, in which she defends this decision after some apparent criticism of them for doing so.

You can read the full piece here – and I recommend you do so.

Of course I had a wry smile when I read the bit about the last strike action, and the hundreds of social media messages of complaint, the common theme being “when am I going to get a refund on my council tax” – I’m sure anyone managing local Government social media accounts is familiar with that one!

But I think Ms Hall’s article really puts across well why they have agreed to do this – so that people will hopefully understand the breadth of services your local authority provides. Many of us are lucky enough not to need many of them – but if you did need them, believe me, you’d notice if they weren’t around.

In this time of cuts and budget pressures on local authorities they need to make sure their voice is heard more than ever. Hopefully programmes like Call the Council will play a part in doing that – and we as communicators need to keep playing our role.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished programme, and well done to Wigan for being the ones to put themselves under the spotlight, hopefully for the benefit of local authorities up and down the country.

Not sure it’ll stop the Facebook ‘haters’, though!