Part 1: Introduction

Good Practice for Managing Public Communications by Local Authorities.

The importance of Council communications

Communication with the public is a major part of any Council’s activities. It can consume large amounts of ratepayers’ money.

Some types of public communications are mandatory – for example, notifying Council meetings, or issuing a statutory plan for consultation. Others are discretionary – for example, a Council-funded newsletter, a media release explaining a recent decision, or a pamphlet about disposal of household waste.

Councils communicate with the public by many different means. For any communication, a Council has a broad range of choices – both as to the medium to be used (e.g. whether to pay for newspaper advertising or use the Council’s web site) and the degree of sophistication involved.

Choice introduces judgment and subjectivity. The dilemma of the communicator is in reconciling the potentially conflicting criteria of:

  • making the communication attractive so that the audience will give it their attention, absorb it, understand it, and (if that is what is expected) act on it;
  • meeting acceptable standards of probity; and
  • presenting accurate, complete, and fairly expressed information.

The skill required of the communicator is to observe the relevant principles and apply the highest possible standards, and, importantly, to learn from experience.

Why this guide?

Communication of information at public expense or in an official capacity always carries the risk of criticism. The commonest complaints (except for statutory notifications) are that a communication is unnecessary, unbalanced, or politically biased. The best defence to any complaint is that the communication meets acceptable standards.

The Auditor-General is often asked to express a view on whether a particular communication is acceptable. Some requests come from the Council, before publication. Others come from members of the public afterwards, complaining about what has been done.

Until 1996, there was no authoritative guidance as to what standards were acceptable in Council communications. Our suggested guidelines – first published in that year, and now updated for the second time – have aimed to fill that vacuum. Just as we bring an independent perspective to our job as the auditor of local authorities, we try to describe good practice that reflects not only the theory and practice of communications but also the expectations of the public.

We derive our guidance from:

  • our knowledge of the kinds of official communications that may cause concern in both the central and the local government sectors;
  • our experience, not only in giving help to communicators but also in dealing with complaints from the public; and
  • our consultations with a range of Council communications staff and advisers and with Local Government New Zealand.

The feedback we received from our consultations was that independent guidance is a valuable and necessary aid, not only for Council Members but also for communications staff and advisers. Guidance can:

  • provide a general framework for the conduct of a Council’s communications activities;
  • help with clarifying roles and responsibilities – especially as between Members and communications staff and advisers; and
  • set benchmarks for particular types of communications – especially as to what is acceptable in the political context and at critical times such as during a pre-election period.

The objects and scope of the guide

The statements of good practice in this guide are designed to meet three objectives in relation to a Council’s communications practices:

  • to ensure that Council communications resources are applied effectively and efficiently, and in a manner that produces good value for money;
  • to ensure that those who are permitted to use Council communications facilities do so for legitimate purposes; and
  • to promote appropriate standards of conduct by those who consume Council communications resources, or use Council facilities, or otherwise communicate on behalf of the Council.

This wide scope is consistent with our role as the auditor of local authorities, which includes examining the extent to which they, and their members and staff:

  • carry out activities effectively and efficiently, consistent with Council’s own policies;
  • comply with statutory obligations;
  • avoid wasteful use of resources; and
  • act with probity and financial prudence.1

The guide itself is produced under the authority of section 21 of the Public Audit Act, as a report on matters arising out of the performance and exercise of those functions.

What is the status of the guide?

Our guidance is not binding on Councils. Each Council is free to adopt its own standards – which must of course be consistent with the relevant principles of the Local Government Act 2002 (LGA).2

We recommend that every Council consider adopting a formal communications policy framed to suit its particular needs. The policy should:

  • embrace these guidelines – or a variation of them (stricter or otherwise) that the Council considers appropriate to its circumstances; and
  • clearly direct Members and communications staff and advisers3 on how the policy is to be applied in particular cases.

Although this guide is not binding on Councils, they and the public should be aware that it establishes the criteria that we will use in future in order to form a view on the appropriateness of a Council’s public communications.

1: Public Audit Act 2001, section 16.

2: Section 14 of the LGA.

3: Including those engaged as consultants.

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