Local Government Magazine
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The holy grail of ‘trust and confidence’

‘Communication’: Every council wants it; every council measures it; and every council is disappointed by it. By Elizabeth Hughes.

Every elected member and chief executive thinks, “if only our communication was better, people would have more trust and confidence in us.”

And, therefore, every communication team is given the expectation that ‘improving trust and confidence’ is a key part of their job. Worse still, are the risk registers that list ‘improve trust and confidence in council’ and then delegate responsibility for this outcome to their communication manager.

Therefore, and as a consequence of this trend of having trust and confidence as a performance measure, there is a concurrent trend for councils to energetically knee-jerk towards new and better ways of communicating – as if fifinding these will lead to the holy grail.

But, here’s the kicker, your communication/engagement/marketing – no matter how clever or brilliant – cannot address poor decisions, poor performance or poor service.

‘Telling better stories’, increasing your use of plain English (or te reo Maori), doing lots of cute or newsy posts on your Facebook and Instagram, managing the media, doing more videos, emailing more newsletters and/ or ‘controlling the narrative’, will not increase trust and confidence.

These things contribute to, but are not responsible for, how your community perceives you. Please take note: Simply asking random people in your community ‘on a scale of X to Y how much trust and confidence do you have in A Council’ – is not ever going to elicit a response that is particularly positive or satisfying.

Why, you may ask. Because, unless your council has interacted with those people in some way (ie there has been a transaction) they have no way to judge. And this includes your belief that ‘telling your story better’ through various media will shift the dial on their perceptions.

It won’t.

On the other hand, measuring local government services makes good sense – how do you rate our library, the pools, waste collection, roads etc. Councils can see: “this is where we are doing well, and this is where we need to make some improvements”.

There is a direct correlation between the two. But, measuring trust and confidence and then expecting the communication activity to improve on the score, is not a direct correlation.

Particularly if you consider how few citizens (percentage-wise) have any actual contact or interactions with ‘the Council’.

A useful analogy is comparing local government to the rest of the public service. The Public Service Commission does a Kiwis Count survey each quarter that measures the level of trust people have in the public and private sectors.

When people have had an actual personal experience with the public service they rate their level of trust much more highly than the trust they have when just asked about its brand.

Seventy nine percent of us trust public services based on their personal experience. This would be comparable to asking the level of trust in personal dealings with their council.

While 58 percent of us trust the Public Service “brand”, this would be comparable to asking for the level of trust people have in ‘local government’ or ‘the Council’.

Notably, councils do comparatively well against these figures. Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how you can improve the way random members of your community will judge whether your Council is worthy of their ‘trust and confidence’ (assuming you are going to continue with the existing methodologies to measure performance) the following is a beginners guide.

Did the broken streetlight get fixed quickly? Did you let me know you were digging my road up? Do I feel safe in my community? Does clean water come out of my tap? Is my town/city a good place to live and bring up my family?

Are there great places to take my visitors when they come to stay? Is my street clean? Does the rubbish get collected on time? Are the playgrounds free of glass? Are the footpaths easy to manoeuvre? Are businesses doing well (not your job but still will be judged on this)? If I wanted any or more information, could I easily access it?

Getting this stuff right (which sometimes will involve communication activity) is how you build trust and confidence in your Council.

PS – the holy grails of trusted brands in our country are Whittaker’s Chocolate, St John and Mitre 10 – and for the eleventh straight year in a row (source: Reader’s Digest April 2023).

Go figure.

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