‘Multi-billion pound black hole’, ‘councils on the brink of bankruptcy’ and ‘sleepwalking into financial disaster’ – recent media headlines paint a seriously bleak picture of the UK’s economy. The downturn coupled with soaring inflation and continued budget cuts has left local authorities in a difficult situation.
In fact, the LGA estimates that English councils face a collective £2.4 billion shortfall in budgets this year due to rises in staff pay, energy costs and contract prices – it’s clear local governments are facing a crisis and their reputation is suffering as a result.
In my conversations with councils across the nation, I’ve seen those who are forward-thinking taking quick action, implementing solutions to help build strong communities and deliver truly citizen-centric services. Listening to, understanding and acting on the voice of the citizen is essential when it comes to councils building trust and managing their reputation, but with a growing number of digital channels to navigate, managing engagement effectively is becoming even more of a challenge!
So why are local authorities focused on reputation now more than ever? Read on to find out the top three topics cropping up in my conversations with UK councils.
#1. Cuts are continuing ✂️
Councils are not only interacting on digital channels, but on traditional channels such as phone and email too. The reality is, complex and emotive conversations need a human touch and all too often we see a broken journey on digital, leading to failure demand on more costly contact channels.
To paint the picture more clearly, a telephone call on average costs £3.83 and a website visit, just £0.15. If authorities increase engagement with the public through effective online communications, encourage channel shift and the use of digital channels, such as Live Chat, Chatbot and Social Media, the potential cost savings are huge! Hundreds of thousands of pounds can be saved annually by effectively signposting and consistently executing across digital touchpoints and channels.
I’m hearing many councils say that their biggest challenge is buy-in from senior management due to the disconnect between them and frontline staff. This trend is slowly beginning to shift because of citizen behaviour and increasing financial pressures.
Many services, including adult social care, child protection and homelessness prevention, are in high demand but massively under funded. Though this is nothing new, if your council isn’t encouraging self-serve and reducing the friction of contact, you are losing the chance to redirect funds into these crucial services.
Given the strain all local governments are under, reducing services is inevitable, and council leaders, managers and frontline staff are in a precarious position, having to manage their reputation and do everything they can to maintain crucial public services whilst cutting costs.
Finance leaders in particular are desperately trying to balance the books, looking for fast and effective ways to drive efficiencies and cost savings without damaging service and reputation. Now is the time to look at your customer journeys and really think about how these can be digitalised.
#2. Demand is increasing 📈
One thing I see in many cases is that the blocker to success in delivering a change is the disconnect between communications and customer service. The very best councils are aligned, sharing insight between teams and other service areas to solve problems before they become costly or cause reputational damage.
This is because communications professionals have, and will continue to play an extremely important role in promoting the council’s work, increasing engagement with the public and listening to feedback. Understanding public opinion to inspire new campaign ideas and identify emerging themes helps to close the loop with citizens, direct them to online sources and reduce inbound contact.
At the same time, customer services are under pressure to manage an increasingly frustrated public. Implementing an omnichannel approach with the right balance of automation and human touch is important. Councils that can successfully scale their engagement and service through automation, combined with an empathetic approach, have the potential to drive loyalty from citizens, improve reputation with the public and reduce cost to serve.
#3. The votes are open 🗳️
With 2023 being an election year for many councils, managing reputation is at the forefront of many councillors’ minds. Encouraging feedback and engagement across a multitude of channels will help to build relationships and develop a more rounded view of public opinion. In turn, local authorities can benefit from reducing operational costs and shaping the council’s message to really resonate with the local community.
In summary, today’s councils should be leveraging technology to reduce costs and manage reputation as a priority. This means listening to all available channels, understanding your customer insight, acting to deliver the best service or information and learning from the outcomes to consistently improve.
If you’re interested in finding out how your council can deliver long-term cost savings and increase trust with the public, I’d love to share some best practice case studies with you. Get in touch with me, Jack Fox (firstname.lastname@example.org), for a consultation call.