Saturday, September 06, 2008

But How Much Does It Cost To Listen?

Sutton Council made it to the venerable pages of Private Eye, in the Rotten Boroughs section as a result of changes in their communications department. The service was outsourced to Westminster Communications after they had been brought in to write a report on the in-house provision. LibDem Lead Councillor Tony Brett Young said at the time that the new arrangement would not cost 'more than we spend at the moment.' In fact, according to the magazine, costs have increased by around 51% from £379k to a massive £573,600.

I am not an advocate for slashing communication budgets. It is important that residents do know the good things that the Council does. The Council also needs to act as a central repository of information and to share bad news. Many people are unsure how to access council services, or indeed do not know much about what their council do, despite paying through the nose for the privilege.

The biggest failure of this Council with regard to communications is understanding that it is a two-way process. Whereas there will always be messages that the Council wishes to get across, it is even more important to be able to receive, digest and act upon messages that members of the public want to pass on. After all, the Council is only an extension of the residents in Sutton, acting as the provider of collective services paid for by them, when it is most convenient to have a community-based service rather than everyone fending for themselves. Imagine the number of dustcarts that would be driving around if it was a free-for-all.

The unpopular green garden waste charge is but one illustration of this failure. Logic dictates that the Council should consult before introducing a policy, not six months into the service. The LibDem Executive knew that it would be an unpopular policy, therefore they knew that they wouldn't like the answer that was likely to come back. This was failure no. 1. Secondly, they did not clearly articulate the changes. Many people were not aware of the changes until their old clear bags were left uncollected. Others were not aware that the £35 was per bag and not the total charge. Few people knew that the £35 got them a bag that was half the size of the original.

Finally, the consultation that has just ended was strictly controlled to exclude debate. Colin Hall made the mistake of walking into the Carshalton Local Committee where an open Q&A session raised some interesting points, with some shall we say animated residents. None of the other Local Committees allowed this, instead having Colin Hall and or officers standing to the side whilst residents quietly filled in a form. The communications team contacted 1000 residents to gain the views of a statistically relevant sample, which is to be commended. Unfortunately, the LibDems held a meeting on Friday night, before the cross-party group charged to suggest changes had seen the results. Therefore, either the decision has been made behind closed doors without worrying about what residents actually said, or the results are back and are being 'analysed' before general release. Either way, it's not the transparent U-turn that we might have been expecting after the grief that the LibDems got for making the original decision in such an intransigent fashion. The cross-party meeting is next Friday, so we won't have long to wait.

10 comments:

Adrian Short said...

All fair points, but how about some specific suggestions about how the council can improve its communications? On the previous thread I argued that there need to be much more flexible ways of encouraging residents to participate in the ongoing conversation about services and that formal consultations present too high a barrier to participation for many if not most people to have their say. I suggested council officers running blogs which accept comments as one way of encouraging ongoing conversations about services. What else might work?

Cllr David said...

I don't think anybody is faulting the new comms teams capabilities, that is not the issue here. There are many and larger matters need to be discussed. I commend all to the minutes of the Executive meeting of December 18th regarding the changeover and then work out the timescales! Ahem!

Adrian Short said...

There are a number of related issues that I'd like to write about here, and as my own blog is ostensibly about design and urbanism rather than Sutton, if everyone will excuse me I'll do so.

The garden waste fiasco wasn't so much a communications failure as one of overall service design. Better consultation before the new services were introduced might have forestalled the problems and encouraged the council to think again about their plans, but whether it would have done so would rather depend on what questions were asked, of whom and how. The post-launch consultation form was a convoluted mess so I don't have much faith that doing something similar in advance would have been necessarily better.

So what's wrong with the service? I can sum it up with a simple analogy to mobile phone services. If you use a large amount of minutes/texts on a regular basis you buy a monthly contract. If you use a small amount or use the service sporadically you get pay as you go (PAYG).

For almost everyone, the amount of garden waste they generate falls into the latter category. Waste is far greater in Spring and Summer, much less in Autumn and almost non-existent in Winter. For an average garden, the amount of waste to be collected in any week or fortnight might vary between ten sacks and none. The old system worked because it was PAYG. It was flexible and reflected the actual demand for the service. The new system doesn't because it forces everyone into a very expensive monthly contract which even if you can afford it, doesn't provide sufficient capacity in high-waste weeks while entirely wasting that expense in low-waste ones. The problem isn't with pricing per se but with price structure. If I remember correctly, the post-launch consultation only asked questions about pricing within the current service structure, entirely missing the point.

I support the Council's objective of waste minimisation and I'm very well aware of the environmental and economic context of waste disposal. But the new waste collection services seemed to be based more on magical thinking about the efficacy of composters and wishful speculation about the power of green taxation than any empirical research. Green taxes that aim to reduce environmentally-harmful behaviour only work when they're revenue neutral (ie. don't increase overall tax take) and are applied to activities where people actually have the opportunity to moderate their harmful behaviour rather than pay the tax. Avoiding driving into the congestion charge zone is possible, if inconvenient, for many. Moving to a house with a smaller garden or no garden generally isn't.

As for the old clear sacks, they were sold with the promise that if you filled them with green waste they'd be collected. They didn't have an expiry date. It would have cost the council little financially and far less politically to keep that promise than to break it for as long as residents still had unused bags.

In short, the best communications in the world won't redeem a dud service, and this particular one has fish/bicycle levels of utility.

Scully said...

Adrian

As a group we are developing a number of ways to introduce a real two-way communication strategy for the Council. This has been something that I have been passionate about throughout my term of office as evidenced by this blog which was started a few weeks after my election, the first in Sutton and my walkabout surgery, again a first, where Eric and I take our surgery to particular roads instead of sitting in a room for one hour a month waiting for people to come to us.

It is this last point that underpins the whole need for change. It is too easy for the Council to issue self congratulatory and defensive press releases and then wait for the reaction. Far better to take the view that we should not fear the residents that actually asked us to represent them and so go and ask their opinion.

Your idea of a council officers' blog is a good one. However, it would still need to have an overarching strategy to draw people to the blog. When we heard that the Council had only obtained 22 responses in 6 weeks, the Conservative Group went out and obtained 26 in just 10 minutes.

One area that I am currently developing alongside our policy groups is the Sutton 500. This is a panel of 500 residents from all backgrounds and political views to complete a very short email survey once a month to provide a snapshot of opinion. It can't be exhaustive without becoming tiresome for residents but would be helpful as one strand of communication. If you or anyone else you know is willing to join, I can be contacted on councilATscully.org.uk (I've changed the @ sign to try to avoid spam.

Scully said...

Adrian

Turning to your last post, I wasn't blaming communication entirely for the garden waste fiasco. I agree with you that the idea was flawed. I like your analogy about mobile phone contracts.

The old scheme worked well. Since it was apparent that the LibDems wanted to charge, I was surprised that they came up with this particular scheme. Every Conservative Council in London that charges for the service uses a sticker system, charging around £1 per plastic bag. This roughly equates to your PAYG strategy. If they had to impose a charge at all, the LibDems might have been strategically better to have charged a smaller initial price first, say £5 or £10 per bag if they were hung up on the jute bag scheme that we have. By crashing into a £35 charge, they have lost a lot of goodwill and will struggle to get residents to pay any price.

I hope that they will reverse the decision and scrap the charge.

RFK said...

Speaking of blogs for politicians... RFK's blog is coming soon. Although I may have to start using my real name.

Adrian Short said...

Paul,

I like the idea of walkabout surgeries. The principle of going to the residents rather than expecting them to come to you is a good one. Also, to use the medical metaphor, surgeries tend to revolve around treating the sick rather than promoting good health. Being more proactive can help to forestall problems rather than just react to them. How do you publicise the locations in advance?

If the council were running blogs for its various departments and activities they would be promoted integrally with all other communications. As I envisage it, the blogs would live on the council's own server at somewhere like blog.sutton.gov.uk and would be linked to by all other relevant parts of the council's website and link back to pages on the main site where appropriate.

Each individual blog would have a clean and predictable name like planning.blog.sutton.gov.uk or ridgeroadlibrary.blog.sutton.gov.uk. These could be used effectively in print publications and would also be highly guessable.

You would have a central blog portal page that listed all the council's blogs and showed the latest posts and comments from all of them.

Every post would be indexed by search engines rapidly and be findable via Google, etc.

Finally, once someone has found a blog they like, they can subscribe to it for email updates or via RSS. In future, the blog would come to them rather than vice versa.

There is plenty of off-the-shelf software to do this so the technical infrastructure isn't very complex or expensive to set up. The biggest part of the ongoing cost would be the staff time to write the posts and reply to the commenters where reasonable to do so.

I'd use something like Wordpress MU which lets you create multiple blogs with multiple users from a single installation, is free, and for which you can get commercial support directly from the authors if required.

Given that Wordpress MU is the system that underlies Wordpress.com, you could even use the latter as a trial for three or four blogs without having to do any technical setup at all and import the data into your own MU installation if you want to roll it out on a larger scale.

Scully said...

We have a route mapped out that will enable us to get around the ward over the next few months. We then send letters to each household in the selected roads a few days before the surgery. The letter asks them to display a poster if they want to see us which is on the reverse of the letter.

Previously we had 2 people in 2 years. We are averaging about 5 households each time we go out on the new system and have had very positive feedback. It'll always be relatively small numbers that want to engage in this way but I'm pleased that it has been received well.

People can still always call, write, email or respond here if we are not in their area when they have an issue that they would like to raise.

Sean Ludlow-Harris said...

Councillor Scully,
One of the key points here, which must not escape our attention, is that Liberal Democrat Councillor Brett-Young broke his pledge that the new Communications Department would not cost the taxpayer more than previously.

We live in a digital age in which communication has become efficient, easy to access and in many cases an integral part of modern life in a way that it never used to be. As such Councils like Sutton need to step up to the mark and I can only assume this will be reflected in budgets and cost.

As a resident I feel as though Sutton Council's communications with people is one sided and often ignored.

General cynicism about Sutton Council will not be helped when senior ruling council members break fundamental promises about the cost to taxpayers. Why do something so daft in the first place? Why not simply be honest?

David Park said...

Paul,

You make a very good point, as does Adrian Short. However, blogs alone will not be the answer.

I wish you luck as you pursue a better communciation strategy. It will come as a welome change to most residents to find that their views actually matter! Surely it can only lead to better policy in the long run too?

David