The first paper in the new Council Spending Uncovered series, which revealed councils' spending on publicity, has caused quite a stir. The figures have been reported in every corner of the land, and there has been a strong debate about which areas of spending could be cut back to reduce the burden on ordinary taxpayers.
It is unsurprising that local government communications officers have been energetically trying to defend their own pay packets and justify their existence, including using every trick in the book to avoid any suggestion that savings can be made. A classic example is an article on LocalGov.co.uk which reports:
Research claiming councils are spending an average of £970,000 a year on publicity was ‘shoddy’, according to a local government communications expert.
Really? Which "expert" is this?
An executive member of LGcomms and the head of communications at two London councils, Cormac Smith
Ah. So someone who has two, yes, two salaries from council publicity spending (plus anything he might bring in from LGComms) is defending that very spending. What forest-based lavatorial arrangements do bears have? Is the Pope subscribed to a particular religious doctrine?
So, having established that this self-proclaimed "expert" is far from independent in the matter, let's have a look at his objections.
He said: ‘The latest press release from the group appears to be based on some shoddy research. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that it has not obtained the same information for each local authority. It is simply not comparing like with like.’
Except he seems to have deliberately ignored where this information has come from - it is from the legally required "Publicity" section of each council's accounts. We acknowledge in the report that there could be some variation between different councils' inclusions in that section, but if there are variations then that is clearly down to councils and their accountants, not the TPA. If he's the expert he claims to be, Mr Smith needs to talk to his own colleagues about any failings in their own official figures.
We have obtained the most comparable data available from each authority, but of course we would like them to publish their expenditure in far more detail. In many other countries the financial outgoings of public bodies are far more transparent than in British local government. If Mr Smith and his colleagues at LGComms would like to join us to campaign for greater financial transparency and more detailed accounting that would be great.
Interestingly, even he admits that
"There are still too many councils with ineffective communications teams, often spread across the organisation and operating without the benefit of central control."
Leaving aside that this quote reveals that his comments seem to actually be about him touting for business (if indeed it is possible to be the communications director of even more councils than he already is) it is very revealing that even someone fattened on council publicity spending is willing to concede that a lot of councils are currently spending a lot of money for not much benefit.