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With budget cuts starting to bite, 2011 will be a year of significant change for local government. But for those working for councils this change is causing understandable anxiety, with many fearing for their jobs and concerned about the state of services in the future. That’s why it’s more important than ever that local authorities work to keep their staff informed and engaged.
Internal communications used to mean a staff newsletter and the occasional bulletin sent to managers. But in recent years – and led by the LGA’s Reputation campaign – councils have realised the value of employee engagement, and the role communication plays in delivering this.
Good internal communication builds a committed and high-performing workforce that is focused on achieving the council’s goals. Informed, engaged employees are less likely to leave, more innovative and work harder for the organisation. Staff who understand what the council is doing and why can advocate on its behalf.
Councils have invested in internal communication as a means of increasing organisational effectiveness. But as pressure to become more efficient and effective has grown following the 2004 Gershon Review, councils have sought to make their communications more effective too, by moving them online. This has some obvious benefits, not least in speed of delivery and reduced costs in printing and distribution, as well as giving employees easy ways to feed back.
In 2009, Devon county council piloted « business networking » – using social software with Facebook-style functionality to enable collaboration, file-sharing and improved communication. In evaluation, Devon found this led to improved inter-departmental communications and produced significant cost savings.
Other top-down solutions have been less successful. One West Midlands council introduced a web forum for employees to discuss issues and raise problems, to complement the existing channel mix of an intranet, weekly email bulletin and online staff magazine. After three months and a great deal of promotion, just 100 people had signed up and there were only a handful of regular users.
Meanwhile, the same council’s pilot using Yammer was really taking off. It was only meant as an experiment but after three months had grown organically, though word-of-mouth promotion alone, to 500 registered users and up to a dozen updates a day.
In this primary phase, Yammer is used to bounce ideas around, share links, ask for advice and make suggestions. The council has now ditched its official forum and is looking at a secondary phase where Yammer discussions are flagged up on the intranet homepage and promoted more widely.
It’s fair to say that, so far, councils haven’t been at the cutting edge of digital internal communications; they don’t have the resources available to corporates, while the constraints of (and lack of clarity around) the Government Connect code mean there’s a reluctance to use free or low-cost tools such as Yammer.
But communicating with council employees is a more complex task than it is in most private sector firms. The breadth of work a council undertakes gives them a diverse workforce with vastly differing needs, skills and access. Internal communications managers need to get their messaging out to board-level executives as well as binmen, call centre operatives and those working with vulnerable people in the community.
With large sections of the workforce not based at a desk, it’s not as simple as moving print communications on to the intranet. Instead, digital communications has to support and enable communications delivered primarily through old-fashioned face-to-face meetings. A decent intranet helps get the message to the right team, but – to use a postal analogy – it’s still the role of the line manager to take it the « final mile » and deliver to teams on the ground. Digital can’t, and shouldn’t, replace team meetings, but it can help to make sure managers are equipped with the right information when they go into these meetings, and can feed back afterwards.
The campaigns-based approach used by the award-winning team at Westminster city council uses a range of on- and offline channels to deliver clear, consistent messaging on a single topic. It makes use of a wide range of methods to ensure the same key message reaches the council’s internal audience regardless of their working patterns, role or skill levels, and enables those disparate groups to have their say.
This task looks set to become even more complex in 2011 and beyond as budgets are cut and redundancies begin to impact both service delivery and the morale of those left behind.
Beyond that, we’re looking at a radical reshaping of what a council is and does. With councils looking to shared services, outsourcing and even mergers, the understanding of who a council employee is and who councils should communicate with is far from clear.
Councils will increasingly need to communicate their vision and aims to a range of employees, providers (and their employees), co-operatives and community-based service deliverers.
Councils need to put in place a robust plan for communications across this new complex, networked structure of local government so they can deliver services throughout and beyond this period of change. In the new, lean vision of local government, digital communications will be vital to service delivery.
Sharon O’Dea is intranet manager at the Houses of Parliament and a regular blogger on digital communications
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