Committee told about council's communications failures and how it needs to make changes

By Neil Speight

17th Mar 2021 | Local News

THURROCK Council's communications strategy has received a critical review and the authority has been urged to embark on a change of tack by cutting back on bureaucracy and secrecy and working more to inform its own elected members, the media and the public.

This week's meeting of the council's corporate overview and scrutiny committee reviewed the findings of a Local Government Association (LGA) peer review, which had examined the council's internal and external communications strategy.

While the review picked out some good points and praised aspects of the council's operation – mostly in terms of its internal functionality – the overall view was pretty damning and the council was given 16 recommendations to follow and improve its performance.

The review summed up by saying: "Ultimately, the current situation serves nobody's interests – whether it is the communications team, senior officers, members or indeed the local media. The system as it stands is not working as well as it could do, and we would urge the council to adopt a streamlined and less resource intensive approach."

In a reference that can only be attributed to the huge decline of the Thurrock Gazette, which has closed its borough office and is now edited from Colchester, the review said: "It is true that the local media in Thurrock is less prominent than it once was – even since the last health check in 2017.

"However, the council's ability to determine the best approach is hampered by it not having insight into the way local people consume news, or prefer to. It will be difficult for the council to develop a truly effective communications strategy going forward without this information."

The LGA did consult with local media and Thurrock Nub News editor Neil Speight, Claire Sawyer from BBC Essex and BBC local democracy report service reporter Steve Shaw were quizzed by the panel but though invitations were extended to the editors of the Thurrock Gazette and the YourThurrock online news service, they did not participate.

The overview and scrutiny committee was briefed on the report by its director of communications Karen Wheeler, supported by its strategic lead for communications Mary Patricia Flynn (who between them cost the council more than £200,000 annually) and Ms Wheeler spent more than three-quarters of her near three minute overview introduction accentuating the positive and then glossed over the negatives – a significant juxtaposition of the reality of the LGA report – which can be viewed in full here.

The report highlighted that over recent years the council's communications strategy has been hampered by a 'top down' approach, with the chief executive having a stranglehold on communications – both with members and the media.

The report recognised that had recently relaxed but it was still problematic as members of the review panel were told it can sometimes take days for statements to be agreed and it commentated: "There was palpable frustration among everybody we spoke to about this – including the communications team, senior officers, members and the local media.

"Clearly the current system is not working. A disproportionate amount of organisational time and resource is being spent on agreeing responses to enquiries, and then having limited impact due to that delay.

"The sign-off process has been slightly streamlined since the last health check, and the chief executive no longer has sight of all releases. However, there do still appear to be a large number of people involved in agreeing statements, which should only be the case when responding to issues of reputational risk.

"We heard differing views on the cause of sign-off bottlenecks, including people taking too much time to read draft statements to others being overly cautious. It is not our role to apportion any kind of fault, but we would stress that it is a shared responsibility for all officers and members to ensure the council responds to enquiries in a timely and effective way."

One aspect that the review panel highlighted as a plus was the council's approach to Covid-19, but even then there is a caveat. The investigation took place in the autumn of last year when the virus in Thurrock had not taken hold – something for which the council claimed a partial responsibility saying it was on top of spreading positive messages about safety.

However, Thurrock then fell off a cliff in terms of coronavirus and for a period of time became the UK's most infected area in terms of Covid victims per 100,000 residents.

In her summary Ms Wheeler took all the plaudits – but failed to mention the downturn!

The concern of elected councillors, who feel they are emasculated by the bureaucracy and delay within the internal communications system – they are not allowed to speak to officers directly and have to channel enquiries through a cumbersome email process, was evident.

The report says: "Members do not feel sufficiently supported. Many spoke highly about the relationship they have with individuals in the team, but overall, there is a sense of frustration. Mostly this can be attributed to the issues with the sign-off process detailed above. But it is also a result of members seeing criticism of the council in the local media and online, and not having confidence that there is a plan to address it.

"Portfolio holders do not seem to feel there is a proactive strategy in place to promote good news, which has resulted in them feeling unprotected.

"Members need to gain a better understanding of how the communications team can support them. There sometimes appears to be confusion about what constitutes a political or an organisational message – when the council should respond corporately, or councillors should do so individually or as a party.

"Key council decisions are communicated by press release, but there are opportunities for members to play a greater role in amplifying them. For example, a briefing could be prepared by the communications team for all councillors containing key messages and social media assets that could be used on their own channels."

Members of the overview and scrutiny committee were briefed about the council's roadmap for improving communications.

A 16 section plan reflecting the review panel's recommendations was outline. It can be read in full here.

Comment

NUB News editor Neil Speight says: "This review of the council's communications strategy was much-needed. Sadly I fear that it will be glossed over with a lack of honesty that has become endemic in the council's structure.

"For the past five years the council has gone backwards and it is unfortunate that the chief executive's stranglehold – recognised by the LGA experts – has had such a negative effect on the council.

"Prior to her arrival local media editors met with the CEO, senior officers and leader of the council monthly to discuss all the key topics of the day. We were invited to the civic offices to have a cup of tea, a biscuit and an informal chat. No topics were off the table.

"In addition the media could pick up the telephone and expect to get a quick reply to urgent matters and to be briefed by informed people.

"All that stopped overnight. Since then I have challenged the council's new found official disregard for the media several times. The council, as is its right, has challenged back with two referrals to the Independent Press Standards Organisation after I had called out the council's senior officers and top councillors for operating a regime of secrecy. Both times the council got a bloody nose but it changed little.

"In October 2018 I felt obliged to comment on the way the council shielded Ms Carpenter from public scrutiny. She penned her own personal self-congratulatory appraisal and then, when questions were asked, it was quickly kicked under the carpet!

"And if anyone thinks it's just my grudge, the Times actually wrote a leader reflecting on the 'malice and arbitrary authoritarianism' shown by the council and reflected on the 'dispiriting' actions of chief executive Lyn Carpenter which 'corrode democracy and public trust'.

"Private Eye went even further and called her a 'dimwit' and later awarded her the 'Kim Jong Un' award in its annual Rotten Borough awards for her 'instinct for secrecy'.

"There have been numerous instances over the past five years, not only of the secrecy but also the arrogance of this council. A couple of years ago, for example, it crowed loudly about its role as a fraud investigator and claimed credit for putting a couple of crooks behind bars.

"What the council didn't say was that its misguided role in the affair acting as prosecutor almost brought a trial to its knees and it was only a judicial intervention that ensured a positive conclusion. No mention of that in the council's bellowing from the rooftops about how good it is!

"Readers may be more familiar about the multi-layered attempts to hide appalling failures by its children's services team despite the best efforts of genuinely-concerned whistleblowers who were then hounded by the council's internal investigation process despite a policy that is supposed to free their consciences.

"And more recently we have seen appalling mismanagement of key projects like the A13 widening and the botched Stanford rail station.

"The list, it seems, is endless, but let us hope that this new spotlight on its failings will make a difference.

"Sadly all previous attempts to haul this council back from the precipice of contempt, secrecy and self-righteousness have failed but we live in hope."

     

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