Importance of imparting information

By David Walker | 30 March 2015
  • David Walker

Out with the election campaigners on a busy Saturday high street, you note how the shoppers look ahead to plot their way past the proffered pamphlet, desperate to avoid eye contact and the political conversation that might follow.

They want to get on with their lives, making ends meet, doing what they can for the kids, following their team.

Politics can sometimes seem an alien intrusion. And yet the decisions that issue from political engagement matter so much to ‘real life’.

Without parties and politics, there can be no legitimate decisions about services, taxes, spending, regulation, housing, migration – things that really do make a difference to people.

Winning attention, keeping people informed – it’s an uphill struggle, especially at local level. The best councils experiment about how to get messages across. Councillors are well versed in the separation between party and council interests. Party workers are vital cogs in informing citizens; council spending observes tight norms of non-partisanship.

Councillors see that different media work in different places. In some, street signage works, in others, social media. Elsewhere, still, the best media for getting a message to people are good old-fashioned municipal newspapers and magazines.

Information is the lifeblood of local government; constricting its flow will cause injury and eventually death. That’s why Eric Pickles’ determination to squash Greenwich Time – and his threats against Newham, Waltham Forest and Hackney – don’t just smack of Thatcherite intolerance of activist Labour local government. They give the lie to the claim that the Cameron coalition has been ‘localist’ in any serious or sincere way.

George Osborne may bed down with Sir Richard Leese. Coalition ministers may persist in saying they want to devolve spending, but the actions of coalition ministers inside and outside the Department for Communities and Local Government tell a different story.

They believe in neither the potency nor the legitimacy of elected local government, except (perhaps) in its minimalist Buckinghamshire or Essex manifestations.

They were at it again in the Budget, making a promise to review business rates as if the only thing that matters is what private sector firms pay, rather than ensuring secure and sustainable revenue for local government services.

There is a general case to be made for civic information. The effectiveness of service delivery depends on access, knowledge and people’s capacity to make personal and collective decisions.

You could make the point about the NHS or the Department for Work and Pensions (both of which spend a lot on pamphlets, leaflets and internet communications).

The point about Greenwich Time is simple. Councils invest in local flows of information on the basis of their knowledge of their people and their areas. Who has a better grasp of what the citizens of Blackheath or Woolwich know or don’t know – Eric Pickles or Cllr Denise Hyland, the council leader?

Rules on partisan publicity were sorted out long ago. It’s risible that Whitehall thinks it can teach councils how to behave properly when certain departments’ press offices are continuously straying over the line that should separate ministerial propaganda from neutral government information.

Besides, there are tried and trusted mechanisms in local government to police the use of public money, or at least there were until Mr Pickles killed the Audit Commission. Where, by comparison, is the oversight of spending on information by academy chains?

Local circumstances will inform a council’s decision in the balance between print and online materials. Mr Pickles tries to present himself as knight errant on behalf of local newspapers, struggling against the evil municipal giant.

Typically, he works by assertion. Having collected no evidence about local news markets; he prefers to rely on the self-interested claims of editors and publishers (many of which are conglomerates with – no surprise – a historical tendency to back the Tory party).

A council has to make a considered judgement about the best means of informing residents.

A good council will want to go well beyond the statutory minimum of financial information. How else can ‘place’ be shaped, except by a rich, two-way flow of data and opinion between citizens and local authority?

David Walker is former director of public reporting at the Audit Commission

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