Public trust in many things has been badly damaged these past few years. Do we trust anyone anymore? Well we do but to very varying degrees – we know who we trust most and who we trust least. That’s helpful to know. What’s even more helpful is a new guide which aims to help communicators engage more effectively with their communities in order to increase trust.

by David Holdstock

Flick through any newspaper or land on any website and chances are you’ll soon come across a pretty bleak picture of current levels of trust in traditional institutions. Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer describes the situation as a “crisis” and claims of ‘fake news’, ‘expert fatigue’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘post-trust’ seem to be everywhere. You could be forgiven for thinking that as communicators we are now ‘post’ the point of no return’ when it comes to developing effective relationships and building trust.

In local government, we’re actually doing pretty well on the trust issue.  Significantly more people trust their council and their councillors to take decisions which affect their local area than trust central Government, MPs and Ministers.  So why do we need to worry?  As councils are having to make difficult decisions about budgets, services and asking their residents to do more, closer engagement is going to be crucial.  I like to think of it as the ‘IKEA Model’ – decent quality furniture at a reasonable price but you need to collect it and build it yourself.  In the case of local public services, it is about residents doing more for themselves, often on-line so valued services can be preserved.  This will need different conversations. 

While a significant amount of column inches seem to be dedicated to a lack of trust in what institutions say, far less attention is paid to the way they say it. What if the problem is less in the words we’re using and more in the way we’re getting our messages out? What if the answer to improving public trust lies in changing the way we’re talking with and listening to our residents rather than in finding a brand new vocabulary?

In the age of social media it seems a logical conclusion to come to. Our residents, staff and stakeholders are used to having an opinion and input into anything and everything – and that is absolutely right. Whether it’s commenting on actions taking place across the world’s political stage or sharing thoughts on who should win at the Oscars, no topic is off limits when it comes to public involvement and scrutiny.

And yet, many institutions, including the public sector, are still taking a broadcast approach to communication and engagement – telling people what we think they need to know, rather than asking them what they think is important. And then, most important of all, taking action.  If we want to change the way people perceive us we’ve got to start talking with them rather than to them.

To help those next steps, we’ve developed New Conversations – a guide to engaging more effectively with communities.  In many ways, this is the third part of our Reputation Campaign work.

The guide covers the basics – from early decision-making through to evaluation, surpassing expectations – helping it to go further, build social capital, save money and create confidence in the council and engagement in action, which includes detailed case studies and evidence from four pilot projects in Harlow, Hackney, Staffordshire and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.  These provide some practical and real examples on engagement in action, covering different types of authority in different parts of the country.

The guide covers the basics – from early decision-making through to evaluation, surpassing expectations – helping it to go further, build social capital, save money and create confidence in the council and engagement in action, which includes detailed case studies and evidence from four pilot projects in Harlow, Hackney, Staffordshire and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.  These provide some practical and real examples on engagement in action, covering different types of authority in different parts of the country.

Councils are already making great progress towards strengthening engagement. Some polling we recently commissioned shows that 46 per cent of people are satisfied with the level of engagement their council offers.  This is a good start but clearly, there is still some work to do.  This guide will help us to build on that work.

Do let us know what you think and if you have examples of great engagement, do let us know so we can further develop this guide.

David Holdstock is Director of Communications and the Local Government Association

image via Flickr Creative Commons

Original source – comms2point0 free online resource for creative comms people – comms2point0

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