Public notices: the case for radical reform

Local authorities in the UK spend up to £67.85m every year publishing public notices in local newspapers.The individual cost of publishing a notice can reach over £20 per column cm in some publications, upwards of three times the cost for other adverts. This is resulting in a weighty burden on councils.

Local authorities are crying out for change. We surveyed 110 councils for our recent report on the issue and found more than 90% of respondents want the legal requirements reformed. One commented that current standards “are an out-of-date anachronism of a pre-electronic age”. The head of communications at Brighton & Hove said they were a “total waste of public money”.

In terms of cost and time effectiveness, the success of reaching and engaging an audience and assessing feedback, the vast majority of residents rated the current system as bad or very bad. It is clear that councils are not getting value for their money.

LGiU wants to see a mixture of subtle and radical change:

• Councils should be free to decide where it is best to place public notices.

• More work needs to be done to de-jargon and standardise the content of public notices.

• Councils who do publish notices online should offer users a email subscription service, allowing uses to opt-in to receive public notices.

• Hyperlocal, neighbourhood websites, as well as traditional local media news sites, should be encouraged to carry feeds of council notices.

The government should also look into the possibility of supporting the development of a central online portal for publishing public notices.

We are keen to collect information and insight from the US. If you are interesting in local government communications please take part in our survey that forms the base of this project.

There is not, and should not be, a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Councils want the freedom to decide where is best to place public notices. Some may choose to go online only, others to continue publishing in local publications.

What impact would changing the system have? We can transform the way councils think of public notices, from being a chore and a cost, to a communication point that adds value to the council’s engagement and channel shift strategies.

We also want to see a greater involvement of hyperlocal and community forums in the sharing of these notices. As Networked Neighbourhoods have shown, more and more people are using these citizen-led sites to find local information.

And what for the local press? These changes would have a big impact on local papers – £67.85m is a significant contribution to commercial newspaper industry’s turnover. There is no doubt that a vibrant, local media is vital to the democratic process, but the current trend invites some hard questions about value for money.

More information can be found on http://reformpublicnotices.tumblr.com/

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Total agree with you on this one. It fails for a few ways – at its core, it doesnt serve as a public notice as very few people read print newspapers anymore. Also it is really expensive.

At the most basic, the goal should be the same – reach X # of people in your area and publicly notice the changes. The difference I would have is that you can do that via any medium – display ads or Facebook ads that are geotargeting would be perfectly fine

Andrew Krzmarzick

Is there any way to know in a particular area the primary ways that people consume information online. For instance, can you gather web stats to know that:

  • 86% read their emails daily (action: run a campaign to get them to sign up for email alerts)
  • 75% of citizens in a geographic area use Google search (action: run ads on key searches)
  • 56% read their local paper online (action: run ads or request a story here)
  • 37% are on Facebook x hours per day, especially from 8p – 10p (action: post notices at this time)

Our tendency might be to say “social media is the answer” when people are spending their time doing in other places online where we can catch them in their stream.

And don’t discount the value of good ol’ fashioned billboards, or running ads (on the screen or in the hall) at the local movie theater or wherever people gather the most…

Dale M. Posthumus

I don’t think you can discount the newspaper. Perhaps in the UK, “very few” people read the papers, but in the US, papers are still widely read and are an important medium for people who are either less electronically inclined or have less access to electronic information. If your public notice has much more of an impact on senior citizens for example, finding more cost-effective ways of using newspapers may be one of the better ways to get to the people who need to know. Negotiate, let the papers know that you may drop them altogether if you can’t get a better deal.

Dawn E. Doyle

Since LGiU is a think-tank with a vested interest in policy making, they should know that drastically changing the way public notices are processed could damage the council’s integrity, public trust and transparency. Lending too much control to government agencies to make the majority of decisions, according to American newspapers, is “an invitation for cronyism and abuse,” since many citizens, like the elderly, poor and low income do not have access to computers or hand-held electronic devices. Adding more web based government websites and “Networked Neighborhoods” would also further confusion as to where citizens and businesses obtain their information. The KISS principle (keep it short and simple) applies in this case; most systems work best if kept simple instead of complex.

Considerations to social outcomes are much more important than trying to save a few bucks; i.e. the economic model Public Choice Theory argues that for a “minority of individuals, costs are diffused and benefits are concentrated, but the majority in need, will lose.”

I agree with the call for “de-jargonizing” the public notice content; even President Obama called on the executive legal staff to make changes in how some laws are worded.

Based on personal experience I have a prime example of why print versions are still a viable choice for public notices: Five years ago my grandson was kidnapped by his father and taken to another state; when the child was found, local law enforcement refused to intervene; they said it was a civil case. Two years later a friend of the family, who reads the entire newspaper every day, (front to back), and who does not use a computer, called to let me about an adoption proceeding regarding my grandson. Needless to say this was the legal break my daughter needed and she was awarded full custody. If the public notice had been posted on a website, instead of a newspaper, my grandson would have been legally adopted without his mother’s consent or knowledge.