15 July 2022

Getting both sides of the story

(Published on the website of the Municipal Journal – 15 June 2022)

There can be many disparities in local government between what we think of services we deliver and how the public rates them. That can be a park loved by children but seen by a few parents as a place that needs updating. There might be the adult services user who focuses on the one thing that we do not provide whilst missing the several that only we deliver. Yet I doubt there are many areas of our work where there is such a disparity between what we tell ourselves we do and what users -  journalists - say we do.

One of the things I ask my service users in my roles heading communications for councils is, ‘how are we doing?’ So how have journalists replied to me? Not with as harsh responses I have received when I have undertaken the same roles in the NHS, but sometimes only with just a lesser degree of criticism.

The journalists will often note that they have never been asked this before by us and then they can list issues they have had with my and other local authorities. It can be a long list. It is also a constant list and is reflected in what I have heard recently from Local Democracy Reporting Service reporters and other journalists.

They can say they wonder if we think we are being accountable to the public through them. Do we either not know what we do can be poor or are we deceiving ourselves? Maybe we know we are misleading those managers to whom we report.

They ask why despite our fine words about accountability, do we spin, dismiss or just plain ignore some media queries? Why do we see our job as just being to protect the local authority from reputational damage rather than telling the truth and not being disingenuous in pursuit of defending the council? They also can mention ignored deadlines, delayed acknowledgements of media queries and unmet, yet promised, responses - and all this to journalists working against the clock. They will also praise individuals or give thanks for good ideas that worked as great stories.

The media can also complain about how simple media enquiries can be turned into FOIs with consequent accompanying delay. I have not yet told them how I know of councils where the Head of FOIs is also the Head of Communications – an unhappy clash of interests.

Yes, journalists may not understand why we do not release some reports or part of the same, or be cynical - without merit - about our reasons for not doing so. Some have even expressed disquiet with me when being told they need to speak to another local authority or public body because the matter unquestionably is the responsibility of others.

Are these valid criticisms from journalists? I think they can be.

I am thinking of the emails I have seen go around between local authorities about how we should agree on a joint response to a journalist’s enquiry on a matter despite there being different policies amongst us. I am also recalling completed responses that are not sent until after the deadline for the article but that have been ready to go for hours.

Journalists have a high attrition rate on local papers and so local authority Communications teams can hone in on those inexperienced : ‘You are forbidden to ask any other council officer about this’ (journalists can ask who they like). ‘Make sure you send that back to me to see before you publish’ - agreed. Worst, ‘if you want more from me, I need your source’ and that was divulged.

How can things improve? There might be few council services that can attract the undivided attention of a Chief Executive or a Council Leader as what is being asked by the media. The pressure that arises from that would sometimes not make any Code of Conduct a tough enough control. I also think looking at this service as one on the list when councils are peer-reviewed is of limited use - you need to dig deep-ish. So I am not convinced of the benefits of self-regulation.

I think independent audit of how local authorities (and other public sector bodies) interact with the media is the way. A full-access random check by an outside organisation of how so many queries over a month were handled. Then the awarding of a Level 1, 2 and so on and which have consequences. Yes, a bit like how I understand an Ofsted inspection works.

May 2022

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