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Solace blog

16th June 2017

Are we bothered by falling satisfaction with local government?

Satisfaction with local government is at the lowest it has been in the last five years. This is after many years of holding steady. At the local level, the picture is likely to be diverse. The majority of councils will be in line with the trend, with some bucking it in a positive direction and others doing much worse.

But how useful is it for a local authority to know their own position or indeed to be bothered by a fall in satisfaction nationally? I think that a residents’ survey doesn’t just tell you about know how your performance is stacking up but helps you drive genuine improvement. In particular, it should move beyond optimising service satisfaction. It should help improve your understanding of the capacity of the community to deal with change, and how they can work with the council to help address the right issues. The changes we have made to the Westminster City Council residents’
survey in the last few years, which has run every year since 2003, have been along these lines. Satisfaction with the council is at an all-time high but so too is our understanding of the lives our residents lead.

You might declare, “oh polls are never right”. The recent general election showed them all over the place in the lead up. Yet, there were some that got it right. These tended to be the companies that trusted their own results. Those who doubted their own figures adjusted them away from a hung parliament on the basis that reported turnout amongst young voters just seemed too high. Even the highly accurate Exit Poll was dismissed on election night as simply not matching with the feedback candidates were getting on doorsteps.

So how do we interpret the LGA’s latest telephone survey? Do we trust it or dismiss it as not feeling right? It was carried out in February 2017 and 65% of Britons said they were satisfied with their council, the lowest level since polling started in 2012. How well informed people feel about what their council provides and perceptions of value for money are also at historic lows (60% and 47% respectively). There are indications of falling satisfaction with those classic council services of road and pavement maintenance, and street cleanliness. Residents also seem to be picking up a slightly more negative mood in the media towards councils.

The figures may have fallen but the majority are still satisfied and other data in the survey suggests that the public are willing to work more with local authorities and do trust them.

If you have your own residents’ survey you will have already benchmarked the findings in your head on reading this. Are you above or below the national average? Have you bucked or followed a trend? Are there local issues that underpin perceptions? What is your relationship with local residents? If you don’t have your own polling then the best you can do is to have a gut view on what the situation is, but I think you will be asking yourself exactly the same questions.

I think we should all be bothered by a fall in national satisfaction, and not dismiss as a blip or inevitable. The figures have stayed constant these last few years because local authorities have done so well overall, and we should be proud of that achievement. I strongly believe that if public satisfaction had fallen over the last few years then local government would not have been able to achieve as much as it has. The resistance to proposed changes and the tense hostile environment to local government would have made tough decisions even tougher.

So local authorities have a choice to either ignore the findings of the latest survey or try and understand if local views have shifted and why. If satisfaction continues to fall nationally it will make it more difficult for local authorities to operate, as complaints rise and proposed changes to services are treated with increased cynicism. Now is the time to ensure we maintain overall satisfaction and the engagement we still have with the majority of the public. We must also use the surveys we run to help us develop a deeper understanding of our communities.

By Neil Wholey, Head of Evaluation and Performance, Westminster City Council and a Solace Deputy spokesperson on Evidence-based decision making