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Super communications required for “super-council”

Like cheese and tomato, Ant and Dec or the media frenzy around England football managers and scandals, some things simply go together. They complement each other perfectly, with the gaps and inadequacies of one being counteracted by the strengths of the other – meaning they are definitely greater together than the sum of their parts.

That isn’t always the case, however, as the classic Lampard/Gerrard debate proves. Those two world-class footballers were constantly running into each other’s space, trying to do the same things and generally being worse together than they ever were apart. Some things are better in isolation.

The phenomenon of the “super-council”

All that is by way of introduction to a phenomenon which is starting to become more prevalent in the public’s eye once again – the concept of merging local authorities and/or sharing services between them. October saw the announcement that no fewer than five councils in Kent (Ashford, Shepway, Dover, Thanet and Canterbury) are moving talks forward past the stage of concepts and on to practicalities of merging to form a “super-council”. They could be replaced with a brand new unitary authority, devolving more powers to a strengthened parish council system.

On the face of it, in my opinion merging smaller local authorities makes a lot of sense. For a start, with proper restructuring, a sizable proportion of senior managers can be consolidated into far fewer roles, each overseeing the same sorts of services across a wider area. Teams and services work in similar ways already, so the strengths of one borough can more easily be shared with other areas. Much of the support infrastructure can also be shared – ICT, vehicles and software licences (for example) aren’t tied to any area by more than geographical boundaries. Best practice dispersion combined with cashable savings? What’s not to like?

Identity crises and entrenchment

If only the weight of history and tradition weren’t a factor, things may indeed be this straightforward. There may be bumps along the way, but these could be overcome one way or another. Far more difficult to address are the issues of identity and the sense of history people have with a place and an organisation. Telling someone that the people they’ve known for years and who provide services they rely on are all going to change, even if only in name, can be hugely disrupting and disconcerting, especially for the most vulnerable. For example, many people across south London boroughs still refuse to acknowledge they live in London, putting Surrey or Kent on their addresses while paying council tax to a London borough. Identities matter.

Communicating the right messages at the right pace

Merging local authorities is a big deal and requires very careful thought, planning and communication with all involved. Bringing elected officials together and getting them to agree to effectively cede their power to a higher group is a herculean task which must be undertaken with the highest levels of tact and diplomacy. And making sure everyone affected is well-informed and equipped for the change – from the highest levels of office to the most average person-on-the-street – is a daunting challenge. Effective government-to-citizen communications will be crucial in successfully bringing people along the journey. And undoubtedly, digital channels (notably SMS and email) will be essential to any citizen engagement strategy.

If these five councils are to take this forward as looks increasingly likely (or others around the country looking to do the same), they will need to send very simple, clear messages and information to every person within their boundaries setting out what they want to do and why. The messages will need to be delivered at the same/right pace to ensure no-one is left behind. They have to be frank and honest about the drivers for these decisions, as well as the risks involved. These are not zero-risk decisions devoid of repercussions, should things go wrong; to claim otherwise is either naïve or misleading. Honesty is the only policy.

If the councils do manage to make it work, however, and bring the majority of their populations with them, then we could be seeing the start of a minor revolution across local government. There are a huge number of councils across the country, each providing broadly similar services to broadly similar populations. There are huge synergies and opportunities to be taken advantage of, not only in terms of saving money but also improving services.

It’s a pretty big ‘if’ though.

Glen Ocsko is an Account Executive at GovDelivery. Follow @GlenOcsko