My advice to council leaders: communications, communications, communications

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I don’t mind telling you that when I was appointed Conservative leader of Derbyshire County Council in 2017 the first few weeks are very daunting because there are many things that I wanted to do but so many things that I needed to learn.

There is no instruction manual when you take the seat for the first time. Suddenly you are propelled into a position of power but are the right mechanisms in place around you? When you push a lever will anything happen?

Making mistakes is part of the learning process, but one thing I got right in those early days was having a laser-like focus on communications.

My advice to new leaders taking the seat for the first time is to ensure that you use a strategic approach to communications as a primary vehicle for getting things done.

For me i wanted to ensure that we had a clear, compelling and consistent narrative for what we wanted to achieve in Derbyshire and to use that as a golden thread that ran through everything that we did.

When I arrived at County Hall, I found a council that was very good at ‘Sending out Stuff’ as so many councils seem to do. Leaflets, missives and press releases coming from every direction, but with little or no coordination. Comms of one sort or another was being done in a disjointed way all over the organisation.

When you totalled-up spend up across the council, we were spending a lot on communication – but to what effect? Not many people, including our own staff, seemed to know what their council stood for and what we were doing to make their county a better place to live.

The same challenge no doubt exists in a lot of councils, which is why communications and engagement should be top of the priority list for all new Leaders…  because what you do in the first 100 days will set the tone for the whole of your administration.

For us in Derbyshire we wanted to be known as an ‘Enterprising Council’ – a council which  is radically changing the way that we do things to deliver 21st century value for money services. This means embracing new technology, being more commercially-minded and moving from a mindset of ‘County Hall knows best’ to a mindset where the best solutions to getting things done lie in our towns and villages,

To have that laser-like focus on how we engaged our staff and communities meant that we needed to change things quickly, which is why we commissioned a communications review, which enabled us to take stock and establish a road map for improvement.

We audited how much we spent on communications, what resources went into that and what impact it had.  The review encouraged us to invest more in the central team by reducing spend across the council. With that came a much clearer strategy, delivery plan and focus.

For some, communications is about reputation. For me it is about building a much stronger bridge with our communities and staff that is all about the ability to get things done.

The success of every council is dependent on how strong that bridge is which is why my advice to new council leaders is to make sure that a strategic approach to communications is front and centre in everything that you do.

Author: Barry Lewis, Leader of Derbyshire County Council

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