Opinion: The need to prioritise reputation management in local government

In recent months, headlines in the news such as ‘multi-billion-pound black hole’, ‘councils on the brink of bankruptcy’ and ‘sleepwalking into financial disaster’ have portrayed a grim picture of the UK’s economy. The downturn together with soaring inflation and continued budget cuts have left most local authorities in a very challenging position.

In fact, the Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that English councils face a collective £2.4bn shortfall in budgets this year due to rises in staff pay, energy costs and contract prices.

Jack Fox is senior digital consultant at Orlo

In addition, more than two-thirds of English councils’ budgets go towards social care, leaving them with less money for other local services like road maintenance, bin collection and public parks.

However, forward-thinking authorities are acting quickly and putting solutions into practice to support the development of strong communities and provide genuine citizen-centric services, by listening to and acting upon the voice of the citizen.

With so many communication channels to control and monitor, how can local authorities successfully manage engagement, create trust and in turn improve reputation?

Increased demand
In many cases, the blocker to success in delivering a change in reputation is the disconnect between communications and customer service. The councils demonstrating the best reputation management are aligned; sharing insights between teams and other service areas to solve problems before they become costly or cause reputational damage.

This is because communications professionals have, and will continue to play, an extremely important role in promoting the council’s work, increasing engagement with the public and listening to feedback. Understanding public opinion via social media to inspire new campaign ideas and identify emerging themes helps to close the loop with citizens, direct them to online sources and reduce inbound contact.

At the same time, customer services are under pressure to manage an increasingly frustrated public. Implementing an omnichannel approach with the right balance of automation and human touch is important. Councils that can successfully scale their engagement and service through automation, combined with an empathetic approach, have the potential to drive loyalty from citizens, improve reputation with the public and reduce cost to serve.

Voters’ opinions
With 2023 being an election year for many councils, managing reputation is at the forefront of many councillors’ minds. Encouraging feedback and engagement across a multitude of channels will help to build relationships and develop a more rounded view of public opinion. Councillors can gain a better understanding of their constituents’ pain points and use this knowledge to underpin the themes of their election campaigns. Local authorities can benefit from reducing operational costs and shaping the council’s message to really resonate with the local community.

Financial pressures
Many services, including adult social care, child protection and homelessness prevention, are in high demand but massively underfunded. Though this is nothing new, if a council cannot find ways to cut costs, then reducing funding for these crucial services is inevitable – leading to unsatisfied citizens and reputational damage.

Finance leaders are desperately trying to look for effective ways to drive efficiencies and cost savings without damaging service or reputation. Take a telephone call for example: on average a call costs £3.83 to the authority but a website visit is just £0.15. If authorities increase engagement with the public through effective online communications, encouraging channel shift through social campaigns and the use of digital channels such as live chat, chatbots and social media to self-serve, the potential cost savings are huge. Hundreds of thousands of pounds can be saved annually by effectively signposting and consistently executing across digital touchpoints. 

It’s time for councils to use digital to not only reduce costs but also manage reputation and engage effectively and appropriately with their communities. To do this, it’s important to pay attention to all accessible channels, comprehend their citizen insights, take appropriate action to provide the best service or information, and then learn from the outcomes to continuously improve to meet citizen expectations.


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