Local Government Magazine
CommunicationElizabeth Hughes

Communication unleashed

Elizabeth Hughes says she was told off by a colleague recently for saying “communicating is not rocket science” because she was “undermining the profession”. 

 However, this preciousness about the use of the word “communication” (where all communicating has to be channelled through an expert) has had the unfortunate side-effect of fettering the rest of the staff from being able to do bog-standard, common sense communication. 

And local government is the poorer for this. 

Back in the day, before local government people became so niche, the elected members, town clerk, roading engineers, building inspectors, dog patrollers, librarians and gardeners, were all communicators. They were able to inform, share, converse, respond, engage and illuminate. 

They were, in today’s lingo, channels for two-way communication. 

As time passed, local government became more complicated (did it though?) and the expectations of people became higher (did they?). Media and socials became troublesome and time consuming with pesky people always wanting more and more. 

The act of “communication” was transformed into a skill that needed to be systemised, formalised and professionalised; requiring newer, better, and smarter ways to do it. 

So we specialised it and gave it a department all of its own. 

And yet – as any resident or survey will tell you – councils apparently really suck at communication. 

Why might this be this so? 


Most people don’t care much about you so they don’t notice when you do communicate; and in the moments when they do care it’s because of something you’re doing (or not doing) that’s annoying them. 

So yes, there is a need for specialised skills – specifically focused on strategic and proactive council communication that will address these issues. 

But maybe there is also an element of being too formulaic, too scientific, too prescriptive and too slow (because of the five sign-off levels required before a single sentence can leave the building). 

Maybe we have ended up corseting “communication” to a few individuals rather than empowering all staff to take greater responsibility for being much more effective communicators. 

In local government (as in all public sector organisations) almost all position descriptions have a bullet point saying: good or excellent communication skills required. Yet very few people are appointed or rejected on the basis they do, or do not communicate well. Unless you are being appointed into the communication or customer service teams (front of house), or some people-leader positions, it is doubtful that there is even a particular question or test applied. 

Somewhere along the way, “good communication skills” became an invisible and unnecessary requirement for all staff and instead became ghettoised (choosing my words carefully); requiring some special, certified talent – delegated to the one or few specialists with the word “communications” in their title. 

Compare this to the requirement for all staff to demonstrate their “commitment to Health and Safety behaviours” (notice how Health and Safety is always capitalised to show how important it is?). 

Imagine if the only people responsible for delivering good Health and Safety practice were the team (or person) who has that in their job title? 

Health and Safety is understood to be a vital and valued component of organisational culture and therefore training and support are provided for all staff. Monitoring, testing and follow up is expected. Lapses are recorded and action taken. 

Leadership and specialist skills are still vitally important and necessary (as with communications), but staff members are expected to do their bit also. 

This is the model that councils should aim for with “communications”: basic knowledge and deployment skills for all staff – in addition to those needed within a specialist communication team. 

This might be contained within your Communication Strategy (adopted, endorsed and committed to by the leadership team) as an action such as “enable people within our organisation to take responsibility for being effective communicators – internally and externally” ensuring every staff member understands and can use systems and processes that will inform, share, converse, respond, engage and illuminate. 

Provide the leadership, guidelines, templates, hand-holding and back-up if needed. 

And unleash the communication powers of your people. 

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