From the LGcomms Executive Committee members
In what’s becoming a New Year’s tradition for LGcomms, members of our Executive Committee are sharing their predictions for 2024. There might even be a resolution hiding in among there somewhere!
Here’s what this year’s LGcomms crystal ball gazers think will be the the big stuff coming down the line in 2024…
Andy Allsopp, Chair, LGcomms, Essex County Council
My prediction – in fact it’s a certainty – is that many councils and their communications teams are already managing difficult conversations and exchanges with local MPs, as well as partners including neighbouring district/borough/city/town/parish councils, as the consequences of the Government’s finance settlement for local authorities play out and councils announce their budget proposals.
Eddie Coates-Madden, Vice Chair, City of York Council
I am concerned there may be a broad collapse of local authorities in the ’24/’25 budget round; with the obvious, usual knock-on for communications teams. I predict the Government will cut and run – as or before that happens (a May General Election is my guess) – with little prospect of any incoming government digging deep to boost funding. Resultingly, we may see reorganisation of many councils, (with mergers, and more shared services), national-level strategic change in Adult Care, a shift towards AI in the customer services space and councils increasingly looking to deliver statutory services only. Whether the demonstration of Comms Services’ worth we saw during COVID – when teams drove outcomes and saved lives – is enough to fend off renewal of the cuts we saw in 2011, remains to be seen, but I expect there to be fewer of us, in fewer authorities.
Michael Stringer, Vice Chair, Surrey County Council
I can see 2024 being another year of greater expectations with less resources for local government comms teams across the UK. With elections of all types looming, the pressure will be on to protect and enhance the reputation of our organisations, more public affairs capacity, more support on delivering election logistics, and greater scrutiny on public services. This will come alongside the further tightening of budgets as local government funding continues to be squeezed to breaking point, with more councils running out of road and stripping back to the bare minimum. So, council comms teams will continue to be asked to provide even more for even less… but I suppose that’s what we’ve become good at?!
Alix Macfarlane, National Secretary, Thurrock Council
Intuitive communications knowledge and political astuteness will be vital tools in a year of continuing pressures on local government. Corporate communications is a strategic function that makes the complex accessible by telling stories of place and people for maximum effect. While it’s always important to be evidence based, data driven and tackle misinformation to do this well, it’s also paramount to trust your instincts to translate that innate comms sense into effective and impactful messaging. In a world where everyone is looking for tech solutions, remember the power of your gut feeling as it is based on your learned experience.
Chris Oates, Leeds City Council.
The majority of local authorities will continue to use X barring any future controversy which is so unpalatable that it can’t be ignored. As long as our established audiences are still using it, we will (perhaps begrudgingly) stay ‘loyal’ to it.
Georgia Turner, Associate Member.
Public affairs will come to the fore as a core skill for local government comms professionals in 2024. A general election will almost certainly see fresh national policies on housing, health, education, planning, transport and more, all of which have an impact on local public services and decisions. Add to that potential devo deals, elected mayors, structural change and mergers at a local and regional level. 2024 will be a year of inevitable change – change that your organisation may or may not instigate, that could be outside its control or emerge without warning, but most of which will be within its sphere of influence. As the professionals with the skills best placed to set out your organisation’s position, build empathy, trust and advocacy amongst key stakeholders, and curate that into a comprehensive and compelling case that impacts wider policy decisions, it’s an organisation’s comms team who should be right at the centre of its public affairs agenda.
Nicki Curwood, Warwick District Council.
I think councils will need to be even more creative with their marketing and campaign planning. Gone are the days of scripted, glossy and contrived marketing campaigns, with many levels of approval. There will be a much greater need for authenticity, representation of our diverse groups and strategic use of all platforms and channels to drill down to those hard-to-reach groups. Corporate narrative will need to be relevant to the real-life struggles and experience of our communities, flexible and adaptable for a quick turnaround and demonstrate the value added by councils to the lives of their communities. I don’t see AI taking over this role, it’s likely to have the opposite effect, in making the council look lazy and detached…. we’ll see!
Hayley Cook, Portsmouth City Council.
My prediction is that community engagement and involvement will make its way back into the communications space. Greater emphasis than ever before will be placed on coproducing marketing materials with our residents, and involving our communities not only in development of services but also in how we talk about our services. Offline marketing and comms will need to be considered more too – while more people are becoming digitally savvy, more people are also choosing to step away from social media – so face-to-face interactions and offline media (not necessarily press) will need to be used more.
Louise Gibson, Sheffield City Council.
AI will continue to evolve at pace but many public sector comms teams will continue to be behind adoption of useful tools because of a lack of knowledge, governance on responsible use and funding. Risk of misuse of AI resulting in legal/reputational issues will increase.
This and misinformation will continue to proliferate (in part due to increased use of AI by residents/bots etc) eroding trust and credibility. Communications professionals will need to increase monitoring and engagement with communities to build trust, increase skills in fact-checking, be transparent and use evidence and authenticity in responses.
Greater use of WhatsApp as a communications channel with the ability to curate communities is there too.
Increased understanding of the importance of building accessibility and inclusion into all communications and wider practices (which will be driven, often, by communication teams). This might be a personal hope more than a prediction.
Zander Mills, Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service.
If 2023 was AI’s breakthrough year, 2024 will be its difficult second album – as public sector communicators start to get to grips with tools and start to find out which ones genuinely help their work and which ones are best avoided. The prospect of major political changes and ongoing budget constraints mean that the feeling that we are communicating in an era of constant change grows stronger.
Will Mapplebeck, Core Cities UK
This year Local Government Finance will grow in importance as a national political issue as more councils declare 114s. There’s an opportunity for the sector to talk about value for money and local government’s valuable role in communities, but also a risk from some at the centre that we are likely to portray us as dysfunctional and spendthrift. Also, if the polls are correct, we will face a battle to get a new Government to recognise the power and potential of #localgov. Labour will be looking for ideas (for example how they can build over a million new homes!) and sensible and pragmatic policy proposals will be called for. There is a huge opportunity here for the sector, particularly with talk of a Take Back Control Bill.
Karen Yates, Essex County Council
We will see a rationalisation of comms and marketing approaches, influencing changes in our own discipline to remove ‘the unnecessary’, ineffective and nice to have.
The nature of the financial situation means we will need to get better at prioritisation, working smarter in a more sustainable way – enabling a more focussed investment of the budgets we retain, for use around specific, measurable deliverables and only where comms or marketing is an appropriate lever to pull.
Broadcast comms and using local authorities owned channels will not be enough to achieve reach and visibility, build trust and protect any positive reputation we hold. Fragmentation of media and changing media landscape will mean we need to be more creative to reach and engage audiences, piggybacking on others’ channels through partnerships, sponsorships, mapping established communities and media, building relationships, seeding content and going where the audiences are.
Wellbeing for our teams will become a mantra, as we seek to retain talent and protect them from overwhelm and burnout while giving them a worthwhile endeavour.
Education amongst colleagues and partners will be key, to improve their perceptions of the profession and the value we add outside of a traditional comms remit. Strategy, behavioural science, accessible design, engagement, content design and more. Possibly not what people expect from the comms team.
Michael Moore, Cheshire East Council
With every council and public sector organisation across the country dealing with some level of financial challenge, ensuring that organisations’ relationships with residents and customers are based on achievable outcomes will be a priority. Public understanding about what is achievable in the current financial context is really important. Reputations and relationships are eroded when expectations are not aligned to what is deliverable. Individuals and audience groups have unique needs and a wide range of expectations – these need to be respected, accommodated and influenced to align to the new reality. I look forward to seeing (and being part of) the sector’s response to this adversity, with comms professionals across the sector building new opportunities and solutions.
Lauren Doughton, Shetland Islands Council
With elections looming and budgets being squeezed I don’t think the feeling of permacrisis is going to go away just yet. The value we demonstrated during COVID will continue to be in high demand, but there’s a danger of us being squeezed as people start to look for easy things to be cut. There will be opportunities for us to shine and make a real impact, but equally in those areas where the value of comms has not been recognised, we may find ourselves trying to fight for the resources to do what we need to do. Burnout will continue to be a real challenge for teams as we’re asked to do more with less.
Victoria Hardcastle, St Helens Council
AI will obviously be an area where people want to experiment and expand but the key for communicators is to be working hand in hand with their IT and policy teams so that the full risks are being understood before jumping in with both feet and helping to draw up policy in the use of AI across the organisation for the potential reputational risks it could pose.
Real people delivering real messages will matter more than ever this year. Council’s major budget impacts are around their social services provision and an increased focus on the people these services touch will be needed to make residents more aware that councils are much more than just bins and roads!
Adam Keating, Southend-on-Sea City Council
AI will be more routinely used by comms teams who are struggling resource wise, but it will need to be used with real care, as audiences/stakeholders will get better at spotting its use and calling it out. Suspect we will have a national story at some point about a council getting caught out using it incorrectly. As leaders, we need to encourage our teams to use it, but discourage overuse and reliance, leaving space for human innovation and creativity/storytelling.
Will it be the year of the WhatsApp channels for LA’s?
Council’s will continue to find it difficult to really communicate the budget challenges we face and will continue to face the challenge of ‘whataboutery’ and misunderstanding around the abilities of councils to be involved in many different things at different times. How we respond to that challenge could be defined in 2024 as more s114’s get issued.
Matt Nicholls, LGA.
2024 will be when we really start to see the impact of Artificial Intelligence on democracy and public discourse – and things will never be the same again. Although this year it will be in the many national elections taking place around the world that we mainly see this happen, the effects will start to be felt at a local level. Many councils are grappling with online disinformation, and the rise of deep fakes using AI will make this an even bigger challenge. How best to respond will move up the priority list for comms teams, and I’m afraid there are no easy answers.