LBWF’s press, communications, and PR operation: less about providing information, more about ‘controlling the narrative’


It is a staple of LBWF public utterances that ‘Communicating with our residents is important to us and we strive to ensure our residents are kept informed’.

Indeed, in recent year, LBWF has underlined that it sees communication not just as a matter of informing, but also of transforming, a way of turning out ‘active citizens’, co-partners in the development of the borough.

Thus, for instance, a recent council document promises: ‘We will commit to ensuring residents are more engaged and involved in the decision making of the Council, recognising that they are often better placed to decide how services are shaped or deliver them directly themselves’.

Given this context, it is unsurprising to find that, though fully accurate comparisons are elusive, LBWF almost certainly spends considerably more on press, communications, and PR than its close neighbours:

 

Borough Estimated population, 2018 No. of Press, Communications, and PR professionals employed in 2018-19 Total spent on press, communications and PR in 2018-19 (£s)
Waltham Forest 276, 700 18 1,663,425
Hackney 279,665 13 582,268*
Haringey 270,624 13 549,932

* staff costs only, council ‘does not hold operational communications budgets separately from other discretional spend’

 

What does this money buy?

Some of LBWF’s output is uncontroversial, simply detail about local services and how they operate. But LBWF also spends a large amount of time promoting itself, with a stream of PR releases celebrating anything that vaguely can be claimed as a success. The council’s quarterly newspaper, Waltham Forest News, is of course the prime example of such boosterism.

Less noticed, perhaps, is the fact that, simultaneously, LBWF has become more and more fixated on heading off criticism, especially the public airing of information that might challenge its rosy self-image.

How this works is best illustrated by a couple of examples.

The first concerns the hypothetical case of a resident who has doubts about an individual council policy and wants to find out how it is really performing, and, most important of all, at what cost.

The place where much of this information can be found is in council minutes, and more particularly those of the Town Hall’s various scrutiny committees, since the latter exist precisely to balance the power of the executive, and provide cross-party oversight and review – in other words operate free of spin and hype.

So how easy is it for the humble resident to access such material?

For those who already are in the know, the answer is ‘very’. All they have to do is open the LBWF website, enter the term in the search engine, and, bingo, there is some fairly comprehensive guidance.

But what is it like for the great majority who are a bit unsure about exactly how the council works, which committee does what, and the required terminology? How helpful is the LBWF website for them?

The LBWF home page reveals the following menu:

Screenshot 2020-02-14 at 09.03.48

That’s clearly of no use at all. So the next step is to press the button for ‘full list of services’, and consult the much bigger range of options which now appears:

Screenshot 2020-02-14 at 09.06.30 

It’s comforting to see the word ‘councillor’, and a link to council priorities (even if comically out of date). But there is still nothing about committees, let alone scrutiny committees.

In fact, though this is far from immediately obvious, the procedure to follow turns out to be via ‘All council and elections pages’, and then a further couple of clicks. In other words, digging out the desired information takes some perseverance, and perhaps a modicum of pot luck.

It is, of course, understandable that LBWF highlights information about services on its home page, as for many of those logging on, that is what they want. But there is no obvious reason why such prioritisation should squeeze out committee meeting minutes, or indeed council business more generally. Indeed, London Borough of Hackney’s home page, to take one example, includes this…

Screenshot 2020-02-26 at 09.35.07

…but also this:

Screenshot 2020-02-26 at 09.35.17

In other words, LBWF’s website is the outcome of some deliberate choices.

And if it is discouraging of independent and probing inquiry, that is unlikely to be accidental.

A second illustration of the prevailing mindset is the way that LBWF deals with the Freedom of Information Act (FIA).

By right, anyone can use this legislation to ask for factual information about council affairs, and expect an answer in twenty working days.

Yet, as previous posts have established (see links, below), LBWF’s track record as regards the FIA is at best indifferent. Those who regularly use the legislation often find that their questions are dealt with tardily or inadequately. There is an unusual arrangement whereby draft responses ‘pertaining to a high profile issue of either regional or national importance’ must be ‘signed off by a senior officer’ and shared with the LBWF ‘media team’, something that smacks of illegitimate vetting. And on occasion it seems that even LBWF’s Director of Governance and Law, Mark Hynes, who doubles as the council’s Data Protection Officer, is confused about what are, or are not, his legal obligations.

Against this background, it is unsurprising to find that the government official who oversees the FIA, the Information Commissioner, recently chastised LBWF in the following terms:

‘The Commissioner notes that, in recent months, she has dealt with several complaints about the London Borough’s compliance with section 11 of the [FIA]…Whilst it is reasonable to note that she has not always upheld those complaints, the Commissioner is concerned that the London Borough is making minor but avoidable errors which are resulting in complaints to her office. Such errors are preventing the London Borough from dealing with the requests in a way that is both fair and robust’.

Though similar infelicities certainly occur elsewhere, there is no doubt that, when it comes to the FIA, LBWF is in the worst performing cohort of London local authorities.

To sum up, while LBWF spends a good deal of time and money pumping out allegedly good news, it also does its best to ensure – by hook or crook – that there can be no coherent challenge. The objective, in the jargon, is to ‘control the narrative’.

Recently, LBWF has been advertising for a ‘director of communications and campaigns’.

Those wishing to apply are instructed, amongst other things, that they must demonstrate ‘a flair for storytelling’.

That about says it all.

Related Posts

Mark Hynes, LBWF Director of Governance and Law, receives a second successive rebuke from the Information Commissioner’s Office: what’s going on?

Rebuked by the Information Commissioner’s Office, and revealed to have misunderstood the law, LBWF sails on regardless

LBWF and the Freedom of Information Act: some troubling new findings

LBWF, Community Ward Forums, and freedom of speech

LBWF and the Freedom of Information Act: dumb insolence reigns?

LBWF, Prevent, and the Freedom of Information Act: censorship in action?

LBWF spinners

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