Should local government rebrand itself?

logoThe New Local Government Network has mooted a possible rebrand for local authorities. In an article for Modest Proposals (29 September 2012) I considered what impact a name change might have.

They are relatively powerless, compared to their equivalents in many other nations. They seem to enjoy little public trust. And now they have less and less money to spend, located as they are on the front line of the government’s austerity programme.

Britain’s local councils are institutions with many challenges to overcome.

Now one of the think-tanks seeking to help councils meet these challenges, the New Local Government Network (NLGN), has tentatively proposed that a rebranding exercise might be part of the solution.

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NLGN say that the term ‘the council’ tends to have negative connotations for the public.  It’s hard to disagree.  Local authorities are regularly the target of blame for all kinds of public anger, whether it’s over rubbish collection, council tax, potholes or parking tickets.  Quite often this is unfair, given that central government plays such a prominent role is prescribing what councils can do, as well as holding the purse strings.

Another injustice in this blame game is the fact that local authorities are democratic organisations.  There is a much closer line of accountability between the public and council services than there is for most other public services in the UK, for instance the police and the NHS.  Put bluntly, if people aren’t satisfied with their council, it’s pretty much their own fault.

Would a new name do anything to address this?  Certainly, the term ‘council’ invokes an elitist sentiment, suggesting there is a small group of the local great and good who are in charge of things, with the ordinary people excluded.  Although it is probably an improvement on the term ‘corporation’, which was formerly the standard name for a local authority.

Other potential names could be inclusive than ‘council’, like ‘assembly’ or ‘association’, both of which would seem to imply a coming-together of the whole local population rather than just a selected few.

Some other potential names arise out of the new ways of working councils have been experimenting with.  Barnet in north London has been nicknamed the ‘easyCouncil’ because of its reported fondness for a no-frills approach to providing a basic set of mainly outsourced services.  There would probably be trademark issues if they adopted that name officially, however.

In south London, Lambeth has labelled itself a ‘cooperative council’, as part of its efforts to involve local people more in the design and delivery of services. One can easily imagine this leading to the adoption of ‘Lambeth Cooperative’ as the authority’s new name.

There are precedents in the rebrand of public services, although they are not often happy ones.  In 2001 the Royal Mail was renamed Consignia, leading to a public outcry and a hasty retreat.  More recently, NHS primary care trusts rebranded themselves on mass: they dropped the term ‘primary care trust’ altogether, calling themselves simply ‘NHS [name of town]‘, presumably to associate themselves more closely with the nation’s favourite institution.  Did it work?  Well, within a couple of years they had all been earmarked for abolition under the government’s health reforms.

The potential cost of rebrand would probably be the biggest obstacle.  Imagine the complaints if councils started throwing public money at marketing consultants.  Interestingly, NLGN suggested that the public should get to choose their councils’ new name.  This could assuage some public disquiet about the costs, although money would still have to be spent running a consultation exercise.  And let’s not discount the prospect of a spoiling campaign leading to some poor local authority being renamed the Jedi Council.

This proposal, of course, is only semi-serious.  But the motivation behind it is sound – the real need to empower local government in Britain.  All recent governments have backed this idea but delivery has not met the rhetoric.  This ultimately, is what is going to change the public’s perception of their council.  But I dare say that, when genuine devolution does finally happen, a new name for local authorities could be effective in underlining the change.

Image: David Hagwood

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