Information is Power
24 November, 2005

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Municipal Journal

Very few people jump for joy at the sight of their annual Council Tax bill dropping through their letter box. Yet there can be no clearer moment of ultimate accountability than for a putative elector to analyse whether they feel they are getting value for money from their locally elected representatives. Should this be a moment to cherish, when the elector actually engages with local government?

Unfortunately, most reactions will be extremely negative, unless there is sufficient mitigating information to temper that instinctive response. If the elector can see clearly where their money has gone, and whether there is a sound and simple explanation for any increases, then maybe that local authority is in with a chance of a fair hearing.

Of course, the wisest councils are those who maintain a flow of information to their electorate throughout the year, so that the sting of the council tax bill is less harsh. Direct communications are today many and varied – not only accompanying bills or other literature, but also neighbourhood newsletters and even email bulletins. The London Borough of Southwark, meanwhile, has recently started a billboard advertising campaign focusing on key quality of life indicators – for instance, their achievement of 98% of litter-free streets they claim to have met.

Should we be cynical about what some might see as a localisation of a ‘spin culture’? Well, the public aren’t stupid. They can tell whether the rhetoric is matched by reality, and they know that these are adverts paid by their tax pounds and framed by those with a vested interest in advocating the positive gloss. Even so, councils should be engaged in a healthy exchange of information and communications with local residents. There is no such thing as completely ‘impartial’ information – it is better to have it going out with this flaw than to have no information process at all. So while I would encourage councils to tone-down the ‘glossiness’, they should continue to reach out, and explain and justify what they do.

Direct communications can only achieve so much. They are expensive and difficult to sustain interest. The local media, on the other hand, can provide a great opportunity for key council officers and councillors to be held accountable. Local newspapers are taken by a good chunk of the population, though they tend to be primarily bought for the classified ads and sports pages rather than news. Nevertheless, a good quality town ‘gazette’ can be a lifeline for some residents as their main source of information about planning applications, regeneration proposals, council budget decisions or school changes.

Local radio and media can be hit and miss when it comes to in-depth civic reporting, not least as they tend to focus on crime and police report stories –

leaving ‘politics’ to the national broadcasters. Where regulatory commitments force the BBC and ITV to include political broadcasting it is done reasonably well. Although the chipping away at the edges, and the marginalisation of the time slots is of great concern. Even when they are working well, they will look first to the big names from parliament ahead of the Leaders or elected Mayors of a region’s towns or cities. Perhaps this is broadcasting ‘market forces’ at work. I hope however, that in time our council leadership structures will produce characters large enough to command attention from the local broadcast media – something that is happening with London’s Mayor.

If direct council literature and the local media can’t get the message across, then councillors tend to resort to good old-fashioned campaigning techniques – and quite right too. The much maligned political leaflet is becoming a rarity, not least as volunteers are needed for its distribution, but there is real value in a routine quarterly report from a councillor to as many local residents as possible. And councillors can have their surgery notification cards paid for by the council.

Studies have shown that the greater the level of leaflet or campaigning contact, the higher the chances of being re-elected, obvious though this may seem. While the incumbent may have the advantage in pushing their information, they also suffer the disadvantage of having responsibility for their government, local or national. Those tax bills are tough to counteract. But ingenious telephone and print communications, coupled with face-to-face contact, can convince many to make the effort to traipse to the polling station in the rain. In doing so, they complete the civic contract that keeps local democracy on its toes.