With the North East of England on the cusp of an historic devolution deal there was a lot for communicators in the region to think about at a CPD event in Newcastle last week (June 2016).
The event ‘At the heart of devolution’, was run by the Local Government Association (LGA) and the CIPR Local Public Services Group (LPS).
The first challenge for communicators is to explain to the electorate why they should turn out in May 2017 to vote for an elected mayor to represent their region. With the debate to date stifled by local political sensitivities, the average voter could be forgiven for wondering “what’s it all about?”
Whilst the case for devolution has been made by cities and regions in the corridors of power – we still have a long way to go to convince local people of the benefits of taking power and resources out of Westminster and placing them in the hands of people who understand the issues and opportunities in their local area.
Then of course we have to live up to expectation of our local businesses who have high hopes of what devolution will bring. As Jonathan Walker, Head of Policy and Campaigns, at the North East Chamber of Commerce, said at the event: “We just want you to get on with it – stop the talking and make it happen.”
Fed up of the North East wallowing in a ‘poor me’ mentality, businesses want us to seize the day and use our devo deal as a catalyst for a bold new vision for our region as a key player in the Northern Powerhouse. “The North East does itself no favours when it wears its hairshirt too comfortably,” says Walker; “Let’s get out there and paint a positive picture of the why this is a great place to invest and grow”.
Steve Park – “What will communication look like with combined authorities and closer regional co-operation?”
No pressure then. But what will communication in a world of Combined Authorities and closer regional co-operation look like? Bridget Aherne, Head of Communication at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, has glimpsed the future. She highlighted that with an interim mayor in place Manchester is pressing ahead with its ambitious devo plans, bringing together 10 local authorities around a shared vision and a coherent story. “It’s not easy. As any region embarking on a devo deal will find, this is like mapping uncharted territory. Just embrace the chaos,” is Aherne’s advice.
The LGA’s Director of Strategy and Communication David Holdstock believes that this brave new future will lead to a fundamental re-think of how communication teams are structured. With Combined Authorities and devo deals based on place, not organisational structures, Holdstock foresees merged communication teams representing all local public bodies in an area becoming the norm. “Bringing communicators together in strategic centres will bring greater coherence to the story of place,” he says. “It can only be a matter of time before we see public sector communication hubs developing in devolved areas.”
“A fundamental re-think of how communications teams are structured” – Holdstock
But can local parochialism and a natural protectiveness of organisational identity be overcome to make this happen? Just one of the challenges identified by Comms2point0’s Darren Caveney: “People are confused about devolution,” he said:” At the moment it’s a big unknown. It’s a bit like launching a new chocolate bar. Until we know the ingredients, the taste and the price we don’t know if we want to buy it. It’s up to communicators to fill in the gaps and tell the stories that will bring devolution alive and help people see and feel what life in a decentralised, devolved world will be like.”
“It’s up to communicators to fill the gaps and tell the stories that will bring devolution alive” – Caveney
Devolution is new and different. It is untested and, to a large extent, we are all making up the rules as we go along. But one thing is certain, communicators cannot stand on the sidelines and watch the policy makers piece together a jigsaw. We must be in the heart of things to make sure that local powers connect to local people. There is a story here that must be told. And we must be the ones to tell it.
Blog by Steve Park is Assistant Director of Policy and Communication at Newcastle City Council and a CIPR LPS Committee member