Part 3: Communications – Whose Responsibility?

Good Practice for Managing Public Communications by Local Authorities.

Corporate governance principles stress the different roles of the governing body and the management of an organisation. For local authorities, section 39 of the LGA reflects these principles.

Members (i.e. the governing body) and management of a Council share different elements of the communications function. In essence:

  • Members are accountable to the community for the Council’s decisions and actions. What the Council says in its communications is, therefore, ultimately the Members’ responsibility.
  • The mechanics of communications are operational activities, which form part of the everyday business of the Council. Moreover, effective communication often requires professional input. Most Councils employ (or engage on contract) professional advice and assistance for some or all of their communications activities. The chief executive is responsible for the effective and efficient management of those people and their activities.
  • Communications is also an area of risk. Those who are authorised to communicate on behalf of a Council, and those who exercise editorial or quality control, need to have access to sources of professional advice when necessary (including legal and strategic communications advice). Obtaining that advice is also a management responsibility.

The communications function thus straddles the divide between governance and management in the Council organisation. Each Council should allocate the respective roles and responsibilities according to its own size and needs. For example, in a small Council the Mayor might be the primary spokesperson on all issues, whereas in a larger Council the role might be shared between the Mayor and a communications manager.

The governance/management divide also affects the crucial elements of policy development, quality control, and editorial supervision. We think these elements are best regarded as management functions, for which the chief executive is responsible.

The respective roles and responsibilities need to be well understood by all concerned and put into practice effectively.4 This is especially important when the Council employs professional communications staff – who could, for example, feel undermined by Members intervening in editorial decisions.

A useful approach is to regard the roles of Members and management as complementary, and to encourage everyone to work together in partnership for the good of the Council and the community.

4: See section 39(e) of the LGA. The local governance statement required by section 40 of the LGA could be the appropriate place to record particulars of the division of roles and responsibilities.

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