Christmas in Birmingham - winter challenges for local government

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It’s that time of year again - Christmas trees are being lit-up, shops are playing ‘Last Christmas’ on a seemingly endless loop and, as I write this, Birmingham is in the middle of ‘snowmageddon’.

Winter weather poses very specific challenges for local government comms – challenges that in the main we are equal to…but it wasn’t always that way.

A few years ago after a particularly cold and snowy winter councils across the country faced great criticism which forced many of us to up our game on informing residents about the services we provide to keep the country moving. As a result as soon as winter approaches comms people across the country start rolling out ‘twittergritter’ accounts ready for use, and the ‘name a gritter competitions’ start. This year they have produced such classics as Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney, Snowbee One Kenobi and Basil Salty.

Keeping residents informed about services through a cold snap can be a serious business, but many councils manage to add a humanising element of fun.

Of course it’s not so easy with other campaigns.

Also at this time of year most of us are writing about how austerity is impacting on council budgets and which services are going to have to be reduced as a result. Deloitte recently published their annual State of the State report and one the key findings showed that public support for cuts has halved since austerity began, with 54% agreeing that cuts to public spending were needed in 2010 falling to just 22% this year. This is also coupled with fewer people being willing to receive less from the public sector. Austerity fatigue is a challenge for any of us writing the narrative for budget consultation and setting over the coming months. The same Deloitte survey found that 35% of people they asked were already financially preparing to pay for social care services, even though 55% of them believed it was their responsibility to pay. So while the majority of people understand that the state might not be able to support them in their old age, many aren’t preparing financially.

So how do we ensure the penny drops about this and other big issues?

I am not advocating that we start running competitions to ‘name a cut’ but online budget calculators and the way we have been communicating reductions in services appear to no-longer be working. The criticism a few years ago shook us up enough to rethink the way we talk to residents about gritting, maybe now we should think again about how we engage on budgets and the reality of the long-term impact they could have on individuals.

This is serious and often detailed information, but we must endeavour to keep residents informed and involved as decisions are made that will impact on services for years to come.

Finally, it’s also that time of year when the Frankfurt Christmas Market arrives in Brum, so I am going to ponder this over a gluhwein while local celebrity Chris the tweeting and singing Moose (@TheChrisMoose) performs festive songs.

By Eleri Roberts, Birmingham City Council's assistant director for communications.

Posted on 12th December 2017