What happens next?

Guest blog from Alastair Blair of The Potent Mix, who reflects on the Making a Virtue of the Virtual Shared Learning Seminar. The original blogpost is available here, and you can see Alastair and other speakers discuss the event in the below video.

In a well-ordered world, the Welsh (and English) Councils and other public bodies learn how to save money the same way the Scottish Councils have, and then adopt a portal similar to tellmescotland.

In the real world, it’s salutary to look at what has happened. Even in Scotland, although 80% of Councils have adopted some or all of the measures learned from their training by thePotentMix, a small number still have done nothing and are saving nothing as a consequence. There are still tens of thousands of pounds that can be saved, on top of the hundreds of thousands that have already been saved. Ironically, almost all of these local authorities have experienced the front page ‘Council must save millions’ headlines in their local paper, usually followed by a quote from an official to the effect of ‘we’re doing everything we can to save money’. No they are not, and as an aside, if they aren’t doing it in this little area which I have knowledge of, what other areas are they not doing it in?

The vast majority of Scottish Councils are now using www.tellmescotland.gov.uk and increasingly other Scottish public bodies are as well. However, a small minority has taken a lot longer than they should to become acquainted with and trained in using the portal. Its unique selling point – the fact that it alerts the citizen to what’s going on, makes it far better than any existing system where the public have to seek out the public notice information, either on a Council site or via an advert or poster on a lamp-post. In addition, it’s not difficult to use: in Glasgow, the biggest Council in Scotland, the planning department uploads all its notices to tellme in only ten minutes each week.

The Improvement Service in Scotland has tried to take the message to government south of the border, as indeed have I. The response has been largely muted (with a handful of notable exceptions). The proposition is simple – do this and you’ll save money, improve communication, tick that important ‘channel shift’ box, and future-proof your public notice advertising. This is such an ‘easy win’, yet too many people, at all levels (and I’ve communicated with/spoken to Directors, Chairs, comms people, procurement people etc., at numerous major public bodies – even the DCLG) are simply not interested.

For the newspaper industry though, the unwillingness of some of the public sector to change gives hope that the money will continue to flow in for some time yet. They are right to have that hope. Based on a long career dealing with the public sector across the UK, there are too many who do not want to change, and as a result change is slow and intermittent. But at a time when the public sector needs to save money, improve and future proof services, this is inexcusable and is increasingly being identified as such.

Paradoxically, to someone with a private sector background (such as a newspaper industry executive) this reluctance to change is incomprehensible. However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, for Wales at least. The Wales Audit Office, which refreshingly seems to have a remit to be forward-thinking and proactive, has found out about the work carried out by the Improvement Service and its private sector partners in Scotland and are pushing ahead with plans to take this into Wales. A pilot in Wrexham is on course to save that Council c. 40% of its previous advertising costs. Further meetings are planned across the Principality and it is to be hoped that the publishers will also work with the public sector there to find a mutually acceptable way forward. Given that, privately, at a very senior level, there is an acceptance from the publishers that the revenue from public notice advertising will, one day, be gone, what matters is what happens in the interim. To coin a phrase, let’s work together.

Alastair Blair

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