West Midlands Combined Authority: communicating the role of the combined authority

The West Midlands Combined Authority details how they helped raise understanding of the role of the combined authority while meeting the needs of communities. This case study forms part of our devolution communications toolkit.

Communications support

Challenge

Combined authorities are local government bodies established to facilitate collaboration and collective decision making across a group of two or more councils, in particular in exercising devolved powers and resources.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) was established in 2016, and consists of seven constituent authorities, 13 non-constituent members and four observer organisations working together toward a joint vision for a prosperous West Midlands.

The challenge for WMCA, which is common across combined authorities, is ensuring that members of the public within the constituent authorities are aware of the work being undertaken by the combined authority, specifically in exercising the powers devolved under Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. As a new organisation, working across council boundaries, there was felt to be the potential for confusion amongst citizens as to the role of the WMCA and which projects and activities fell under their remit (and that of the Mayor, Andy Street) as compared to individual constituent authorities. There was a need to raise the profile of WMCA, balancing the need to be recognised as separate to constituent authorities but working in support of the collective interests.

Approach

The WMCA communications team recognised that over the past four years, a wide range of activities had been undertaken under the auspices of WMCA, but that none of this was centrally collated or being communicated to members of the public. People wanted to understand how the WMCA was benefitting their area. A need was identified for a mechanism through which the WMCA – beyond the Mayor - could speak directly to the public, to raise awareness of the WMCA and help showcase the range of work the WMCA undertook to benefit the West Midlands.

In developing a new website that reflected the WMCA brand, WMCA undertook extensive user consultation, with 16,000 responses achieved through a spend of under £3,500. Through this process, the WCMA identified the opportunity to develop a tool that citizens could use to understand what WCMA was doing in their area.

‘In My Area’ was developed by the WCMA Digital Team, working in conjunction with the Communications Team and launched in beta in late 2019. The tool enables anyone to see exactly what the WMCA is delivering in each area across the different portfolios. It allows for events, press releases and marketing materials to be automatically uploaded and organised within the site, helping to minimise the staff resource required for actively managing content.

The ‘In My Area’ section provides easy access to projects and initiatives being developed and delivered more holistically by WMCA and partners. It bridges connections between strategic announcements and funding to the on the ground delivery. The section highlights the power of devolution; demonstrating what the WMCA means by ‘bringing powers to the region’ and the impact/tangible benefits for citizens across the whole of the West Midlands. It gives the WMCA the opportunity to inform their residents without having to rely on the prism of the media.

‘In my area’ has since been actively promoted in presentations to key partner organisations, at events and is also accessible on the IT terminal in the WMCA bus which travels to events.

The WMCA worked collaboratively with the seven Metropolitan Local Authorities to ensure buy-in to the concept and accuracy of information. Since the launch of the section, there has been interest from the non-constituent local authorities outside the seven MLA’s, and the WMCA are scoping whether they can extend the functionality to them as well. The general WMCA website is currently being redeveloped to have a more citizen centric focus. This refreshed site will have clearer navigation and will talk about the role of the CA, Mayor and the WMCA’s priorities.

Outcomes and lessons learned

‘In My Area’ is an innovative response to a common challenge of how to promote awareness and understanding of the work of a combined authority. The tool was only launched relatively recently so details on web traffic are yet to be released, as are any outcomes regarding public awareness of and sentiment toward WMCA. As the platform was soft launched in February, it has had 2,000 unique views as of March 03 with ongoing promotion planned to raise further awareness.

Top tips learnt during the process of creating ‘In My Area’

  1. Understand the needs of the area. If you’re not aware of the needs of the community, how can you improve them? And how can you communicate that you’re meeting these needs?
  2. Communicate effectively throughout this process. Ensure that all stakeholders are aware of the work that you’re doing, and the steps that you are taking, so that they can feel involved and empowered throughout the process
  3. Ask for feedback from the community from the outset. By asking for feedback continuously, you are able to improve and edit a product throughout and can ensure that it reflects the needs of the local stakeholders.