Local Government plays a vital role in keeping Australia running. Not only are councils responsible for providing a wide range of key services such as local roads, rubbish collection, library services, pet control but, under the Local Government Act 1989, council has a legislative responsibility to provide governance and leadership for their local community through advocacy, decision making and action. One of the many features of sound governance is reputation stewardship.
Councils are accountable to their local communities in the performance of their functions, the exercise of powers and the use of resources. Should there be any real or perceived failure in performance of their duties, the community will comment and in today’s modern era, they have a plethora of different ways to do this. How a council chooses to respond will impact its reputation (and by extension trust) as will the issue itself.
Furthermore, not every commentator is bound by the journalistic code of ethics. The issue itself may not be fairly represented or truthfully reported, allowing for situations where misinformation can flourish and reputation be further maligned.
In 2016, there is also a greater expectation in relation to democratic rights and civil participation. Any tokenistic attempts to placate a community are likely to be met with criticism by well-organised technologically savvy community groups.
Key challenges for councils
Community is a broad term that often means different things to different people. As pointed out by the Good Governance Guide, ‘sometimes it means everyone who lives, works or is involved in some sort of activity in a municipality.’ Other times it will mean ‘separate smaller groups which have specific interests that may compete with others in the municipality’.
Ensuring the different views and often competing interests of the community are recognised, addressed and responded to is a key challenge for local, state and federal government. Engagement and advocacy have a strong role to play in relation to building trust and are areas where the recent 2016 Local Government Community Satisfaction Survey results suggest there is room for state-wide improvement.
Deliberative community engagement is also a major reform direction under the review of the Local Government Act and will be a requirement where exemptions are sought to increase rates. It is argued that councils with higher levels of participation through the adoption of innovative and deliberative engagement processes have better satisfaction scores. Participation, transparency and collaboration are also key ‘open government’ principles that underpin the Victorian Government’s Good Government Public Sector Reform Agenda. This argues that engagement should not be an end in itself. To build confidence, trust and understanding of key decisions, it recommends actively engaging citizens to give them a voice as part of an ongoing conversation, as compared to single purpose consultations with selected representative groups. This approach is not unique to Australia. The Canadian Government has committed to fostering enhanced citizen participation through greater collaboration and co-creation with public and stakeholders as part of the new 2016-18 Open Government plan. The plan seeks to restore trust in the Canadian government and democracy by conducting business in an open and transparent way and making sure Canadians’ voices are heard.
A particular challenge for local government where reputation is concerned is in relation to the ability to separate the actions of the councillor versus the council. As candidates for local government elections campaign, it is not uncommon for criticism to be levelled at both in a bid for election. One of the benefits of councils having a strong reputation is the ability to draw on their reputational capital to restore lost trust and to continue to operate in situations where there has been councillor misconduct or criticism levelled at the council.
Survey results suggest improvements in core service areas may improve satisfaction and by extension reputation, but good reputation isn’t based on service delivery alone
In relation to potential public discourse (outside of localised issues unique to municipalities), state-wide survey results indicate there are low levels of satisfaction in the areas of unsealed roads, planning and building permits, population growth, town planning policy, lobbying, community decisions, consultation and sealed roads. Additionally, some councils would experience improved satisfaction if services in relation to emergency and disaster management, waste management, elderly support services and local streets and footpaths were improved.
Interestingly when respondents were asked whether they would prefer to see council rates rise to improve local services or council rates kept the same and services cut, 50 per cent indicated they would probably or definitely prefer service cuts compared with 31 per cent who would definitely or probably prefer a rate rise. The extent to which residents are aware of (or understand) the rate capping policy was not explored as part of this research project.
While satisfaction with core services is important it is not the only determinant of reputation. For example, individual council surveys undertaken in 2014 told the New Zealand Government that satisfaction with services was high whereas a survey of 3,000 citizens and businesses painted a bleaker outlook for reputation with the New Zealand local government achieving a reputational index score of only 29 out of 100 (across the three main drivers of reputation – performance, local leadership and communication and interaction).
This is not a dissimilar experience to councils in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2005 which experienced improving public perceptions of council services but falling satisfaction levels with council.
In recognition of the importance of service delivery, New Zealand local government is ensuring performance doesn’t slip in areas that are important and doing well but are also focussing on improving areas where performance is perceived to be weaker yet are of greater importance. Additionally, in response to the research which found low awareness of services, citizens are being reminded of the breadth of services offered.
The 2010 reputation and 2013 trust campaigns indicated that councils should work towards improving services and showing how this is being done. Moreover local government would also benefit from sharing with the community the council’s advocacy efforts that are performed on behalf of its constituencies to state and federal government.
Leadership is a focus of the New Zealand Local Government Excellence Programme which is aimed at improving the public’s knowledge of the work councils are doing in the community while also supporting individual councils to further improve the value they provide thus lifting both council and sector performance and reputation. This was also central to the UK Local Government Association 2010 Reputation and 2013 Trust campaign.
Both UK campaigns defined leadership within this context as needing to have clarity about what the council stands for (which should be in tune with what residents want) and making sure it is understood by the whole organisation. The UK approach also included the idea of ‘brand’, having a clear sense of purpose and believing and living your values (which should be reflected in the way staff and any contracted service providers deliver services). Within the context of the work that is being undertaken by the New Zealand Government the idea of having a clear vision is wrapped up as part of the focus on governance, leadership and strategy.
Council’s important role in advocating with state and federal government on behalf of residents demonstrates leadership and mutuality.
The UK advice on reputation places importance on strategic communications, having the right skills (and an annual programme of clear, evaluated communications actively linked to our priorities). As stewards for reputation, communication leaders should have deep insight into the characteristics, beliefs and opinions of residents and stakeholders and the impact council actions have on its audiences. Similarly listening to ratepayers, actively engaging and collaborating is a key focus of the New Zealand approach and Excellence Programme (for which assessment results will be available after the local authority elections in October 2016).
Perceived value for money
Research that informed the 2010 and 2013 UK Government Reputation campaigns found that perceived value for money was the most powerful driver for the public’s satisfaction with councils by some margin. In response, councils sought to inform residents about the range of services (connecting improvements made to the council, this is important when services are delivered on behalf of or in partnership with council) while showing residents that what they wanted is what the council also wanted. Residents and staff were engaged in the process of setting budgets and priorities. Transparency and openness was demonstrated by explaining to residents how the council tax is collected and what the money is spent on.
Again the New Zealand local government survey found improvements were needed in the area of making good spending decisions, delivering value for money and managing finances. The New Zealand Local Government Excellence Programme offers councils an opportunity to improve leadership and value for customers. The Programme seeks to increase the public’s knowledge of the work councils are doing and supports individual councils to improve and demonstrate the value they provide to communities. Additionally it builds the link between customer experience in three ways. The first way is by listening and understanding to what matters to communities. The focus should be on how the council can be at the forefront of all decisions. The second way is by ensuring staff make customer-focussed decisions on priorities such as investment, services, operations, new initiatives and planning. The third relates to designing value by ensuring councils and communities share information and this information is used as input into decisions which will over time lead to more united plans, actions and achievements. Performance is seen as much about demonstrating value as it is about delivering it. The view is taken that if customers and communities know and value council services, council reputation and therefore sector reputation will improve.
Informing and engaging with residents and staff
The UK local government survey research found that well informed residents are more likely to be satisfied with their council and feel it offers value for money. As a result, communications sought to always inform and engage residents and staff. There were recommendations for a clear communication strategy and annual work plan which ensured that key messages were included and the vision and values of the organisation embedded and communicated.
Again in response to the survey of perceptions of local government, the NZ Local Government Excellence Programme placed great importance on stronger engagement with the public and businesses.
The New Local Government Act also has a number of proposed directions aimed at improving the transparency, responsiveness and collaborative capacity of councils. These directions seek to reinforce participatory democracy as a guiding tenet of council practice.
Building trust and confidence in what you do
Governments in the UK had been working on improving reputation by building trust (focusing on the three drivers of trust; mutuality, balance of power and trust safeguards) however in 2013 this was the main focus as local councils grappled with a reduction in resources and sought to ensure there was no loss of confidence in the capability to manage the local areas. Communications became less about informing and more about conversing. Brand, Leadership and strategy continued to be essential for any organisation seeking to increase trust. The 2013 annual local government survey found that the ‘the public remains largely unaware of reductions in the council services’ while there was ‘public opposition to service reductions and concern’ where this had been experienced. It concluded that councils faced a very real challenge to engaging with the public around the impact of their financial pressure. Interestingly the same survey found that 75 per cent of council leaders considered the public well informed about the reasons for the savings they were planning to make, whereas awareness among the public was only 36 per cent. This shows a disconnect between what council thought had been communicated and what residents recalled.
Trust in spending decisions emerged as a key area of focus for New Zealand local government and is a priority area on the Excellence Programme for councils.
In summary, individual council surveys are only one indicator of reputation. Local Government faces a number of unique reputational challenges and would be well positioned to respond to these where they have established strong leadership, a high standard for service (ensuring core services are delivered to a high standard) and have listened to and engaged with community and advocated on their behalf. Recent research indicates there is room for improvement particularly in relation to engagement and communication. After all reputation is built by a council’s actions not its rhetoric.