LGA Poll: The voter is always right?

“The customer is always right” is often the mantra for low-margin customer focused companies in very competitive environments. But do public sector bodies say the same about voters?

Perhaps the level of competition is lower, the stakes too high and the culture all about managing conflicts between difficult and controversial priorities when it comes to public policy?

The Local Government Association (LGA) Poll yesterday, showed that the public in effect wanted to protect most large expenditure services, such as Police, Education and Health, whilst cutting NHS managers, Quangos and Overseas Aid. The latter are unlikely to secure the savings required. Interestingly they then said they felt local Councillors (62%) should make local decisions on cuts compared to letting MP’s (18%) or officials (2%) do it. Will this perhaps lead to an increased turnout in local elections as we saw in the 1980’s, when local Council’s were dealing with rate-capping, privatisation and the Poll Tax.

The Government Spending Challenge website is asking public sector staff to suggest ideas as to how they could help with savings. It will be interesting to see what suggestions threatened staff come up with. It is important to understand initial expectations from stakeholders as to the impact of cuts, so we can see how they eventually compare to their overall experience of the cuts process?

We could of course hold a referendum to decide priorities, but, as the LGA poll shows, it is likely it would lead to answers we can already predict as people indicate they want to see resources spent on predictable and safe options.

Why should we expect the public to be fully informed? After all many people would say they pay their taxes for others to think about this in detail. As a result we need to recognise:

  • A lack of detailed understanding about financial challenges
  • A lack of detailed understanding of Council structures
  • An unwillingness to give the Council the “benefit of doubt”
  • A reluctance to articulate cost savings
  • A tendency to hold contradictory views at the same time

When intermittently asked, people will often hold contradictory or poorly thought out opinions. They:

  • Want devolution of services, but also want services to be universal
  • Recognise the need for cuts in public services, but will then choose easy options
  • Want high levels of welfare services, but low levels of taxation
  • Want more social housing, but not built near them
  • Support action to tackle climate change, but not significant personal environmental  behavioural change

As a result of many of these potential contradictions, public bodies do need to take people on a journey that avoids:

  • The tyranny of the articulate dominating an issue – its why TCC works with Values based segmentation to ensure a wider range of views out in the community are heard
  • Getting hijacked by the latest issues, which may be driven by a small number of people in a specific area, with a sympathetic local media
  • Having people focus on the immediate and specific rather than the ‘big picture’, which, whilst understandable, will mean that longer-term service transformation and options like mutualisation and co-production might not be able to develop as much some might want.

But first of all we need to start with where people are at present.

That requires insight research utilising segmentation to really understand the community. This has the advantage of enabling you to:

  • Communicate the challenges more effectively through segmented messages
  • Engage target groups about choices in a language  and in a way they will understand
  • Involve them in the solutions that are developed by finding appropriate ways for them to act

In conclusion, values based segmentation can make insight and engagement more of a dynamic two-way process, not just a passive activity:

  • Recognising the challenges to engagement–  which require us to engage with people at a deeper level
  • Understanding  different world views at a local level –  through effective engagement and deeper insight
  • Application to key messages – enabling them to be clearly understood by a wider range of people
  • The conversation continues – having developed the segmented message, the organisation needs to “live it” through its words and behaviour

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company

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One Response to “LGA Poll: The voter is always right?”

  1. Liam Purcell Says:

    A process already exists for having that two-way conversation, and giving the public a genuine say in spending decisions: participatory budgeting (www.participatorybudgeting.org.uk). We’re pressing to make sure it continues to be part of government policy, and training communities and councils in how to sue it effectively.

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