Last week I attended the GovDelivery Annual conference at the National Audit Office. The theme of the conference was digital government communications.
He revealed that across the country councils spend up to £67.85m (or an average of £181,000 per authority) every year publishing public notices in local newspapers. This is not something they have any choice about: councils have a statutory duty.
Of course, local newspaper owners know this and exploit it to the full. There is evidence that the individual cost of publishing a notice can be upwards of three times that for a normal advert, reaching over £20 per column centimetre in some publications.
This is a lot of money, especially when councils are trying desperately to find savings. It is also an outdated system that has been left behind by technological advances. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that the audience – that’s local people like you and me – is moving away from printed newspapers, to a varied digital media landscape.
Councils know this. They know that printed notices in local papers are inefficient and a waste of money. They know no-one reads them and they know that almost no-one ever responds to them.
I have submitted a Freedom of Information request to Newham council, asking how much they spend on these notices and how many responses they have generated. My aim isn’t to embarrass the council: for once they are wasting money and it’s not their fault! As a citizen it offends me that public money is being handed over as a back-door subsidy to newspaper proprietors. I want information I can give my local councillors to persuade them to lobby the mayor, and for him in turn to lobby central government to change the law on public notices.
The coalition government says it believes in localism and that it wants councils to deliver value for money. Well it could prove it by changing the law to free up councils to decide, based on their local online and offline ecosystem, where best to place public notices. They should de-jargonise the content of public notices so ordinary people can understand what the hell they’re about. And they should allow immediate online response – click a button, fill in a form!
Allowing councils to spend a little bit of money with hyperlocal news and community websites would provide a real boost to the sector and lead to significant growth in the number and quality of these sites, while still delivering large savings.
Taking it one step further forwards, the Department for Communities and Local Government should look at developing a central online portal for publication of statutory notices. You could sign-up for automatic email alerts for new notices from your local authority, or subscribe to an RSS feed. The Scottish Government has already partnered with local authorities to produce TellMeScotland, which would be easy to replicate.