Building a Healthy Relationship with Residents

By Rachael Walker


The bad old days 

Were you around to remember what this felt like? 

Local government has what many businesses envy: a ready-made customer base and no competition. If you want to change your local government supplier, you have to move. Knowing this, historically, our relationship with residents has been formal, distanced and passive.  

This formality meant communicating change relied on statutory consultations, formal written objections and perhaps the odd Town Hall forum where officers barricaded behind lecterns or tables. No one had a good time and engagement was, frankly, pitiful.  

The changes we were communicating were seen as pre-determined, and residents who did interact were either there by chance or had a specific axe to grind whether it was related to your change or not. 

By treating resident communication this way, we fuelled apathy, mistrust, cynicism and low expectations. These feelings have been passed down generations and our residents now, despite our best efforts, expect the worst and ignore the best.  


Communication now

How has the impact of short-notice schemes changed our communication approaches?

Our landscape is changing. The way local government is funded now is more dynamic and short-term. Central government grants are dropped with little to no notice and sometimes even less guidance. Finding out about a new scheme or grant at the same time as residents reduces comms strategies to listening in on a meeting, wondering how quickly you can get to grips with the key messages for a Facebook post.  

Meanwhile, we have business as usual: Bins, dog fouling, empty high streets, bins, summer festivals, school holiday activities, and of course, bins. For good measure let’s also throw in change where you are leading from the front; perhaps a new leisure centre, resident app, or net zero initiative? These changes all need a communications strategy for buy-in, acceptance, protection, and promotion.  


Planned vs Reactive

Planned vs reactive or more specifically, BAU vs short-notice schemes. 

Are these two strands any different and can they work together?

Make the everyday, every day

Building a brand is a relentless, exhaustive process. “But Rachael, we don’t need to build a brand, we’re a local authority.”  


Well, not completely wrong. 

To build trust, credibility, and support, you as local authorities need to position yourselves as part of the communities you serve, not The Authority they can’t escape. This means everyday messages must be reliable, consistent, and responsive. We want to be the first place our residents go for information about our services – not the local paper, social media group or neighbours – us. This requires honesty, up-to-date information and a tone of voice that makes us accessible and friendly.  Remember, being accessible and friendly opens the door for good, healthy communication! 

Can we all agree talking about The Council in the third person is terrible? Good, moving on… 

These everyday messages, communicated every day, build trust to the point where your comms around changes benefit from pre-existing credibility. If residents trust us when the bins are delayed, the schools are closed, the times for firework displays are announced, they’re more likely to trust us when we announce a new community hub or online chat function.  


New schemes, no warning 

Our everyday trust is built over years (yep, years), which is why that ‘branding’ thing we mentioned earlier is so important! And if you’re there already with your residents, you’ll know first-hand the effort and mental resilience it takes (pop into your comms team with some cake, they deserve it). Yet over the last few years there’s been an increase in Central government funded schemes delivered through local authorities at short-notice, sometimes announced at the despatch box for public and councils at the same time.  

To cope, we need a comms strategy robust enough to handle with the pace of change and the clarity of offer needed to get ahead of enquiries, complaints, and unofficial sources of information. We’ve worked hard to build our everyday trust, and now is the chance to bolster our relationship with residents even further by being reactive, fast, honest and reliable.  

If we don’t yet know what the new scheme will look like, say so.  

If we have some, but not all the information, be honest and manage their expectations. If you create a vision for your residents that you cannot deliver on then you will only lose their trust.   

Offer a mailing list or create a bespoke webpage straight away and update it regularly. If you have a regular mailshot to residents, acknowledge new schemes and tell them they’ll know when you do.  

Be honest, be human, and show up. Don’t set your everyday relationship back by approaching the multi-stranded local government landscape with a multi-stranded approach to comms. 

Still not sure about short-notice change comms? Book a call with us. We deliver central government grant funding at a local level using a ready-to-go methodology that includes comms and we love to make friends.  

By Rachael Walker | 26th April 2022

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