14 April 2015

Creative thought: Why the humble pothole will be the undoing of Local Government

And how good communications can help

If you travel by road you’ve come across a pothole at one time or another. In fact, potholes have become something of a national obsession over the past few years, with complaints to Local Authorities on a steep upward trajectory.

This is compounded by the rise in complaints to Council representatives, who dutifully put pressure on Local Government Organisations (LGAs) to make improvements on behalf of the voting public.

The UK currently holds 24th position on the World Economic Forum table of road quality, with France coming in first. Not a statistic to be proud of.

The public’s anger has reached fever pitch, with organizations like the RAC supporting the throng, and LGAs are sinking under the weight of public pressure to make roads better. Additional funding from central government has made little impact to perception.

A review of pothole management, produced for the government in 2012 asserted that “[the public] perceive that the quality of local roads may be deteriorating, with potholes being one of the main causes”.

The review went on to conclude that the filling of potholes was no substitute for good infrastructure management, and stated that LGAs should do more to communicate with the public around the real cost of jumping when potholes are spotted…

Pothole costs

According to West Sussex County Council, the average pothole costs between £50-75 to fill. From our own experience with LGAs, the average call to the council contact centre costs around £8 to service. And trained engineers then survey most potholes, before work is undertaken, in order to confirm their validity.

So, lets assume that the average pothole job costs £100, and that councils receive an average of 300 calls per week, year round. That means the total for any given Authority to fill potholes each year is £1.56m.

When you consider that the cost to surface dress (a method using loose stone and tar) 1km of busy A-road costs approximately £80k – that looks like an awful lot of money for just filling holes. Multiply this number across the 433 principle authorities in the UK and you get close to a total of £7bn in pothole management costs.

Government intervention

In December of 2014, the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced an investment of £6bn to counter the worsening issue, but by our reckoning it will barely touch the sides.

Time for a change of approach

Let’s assume that UK winters are not going to improve, and that LGA spend on roads is not going to increase ten-fold any time soon. It’s not unfair to suggest that the way potholes are being managed is unsustainable, or possibly even illogical.

The problem is that road management is complicated, and the public perception that filling all potholes (or even half) will equate to better roads is deeply flawed.  

The age and slow expansion of our roads means that maintenance requirements vary enormously from road to road. Engineers must undertake to understand individual road construction, subsequent repairs (and their quality) and optimal resurfacing approach.

This is nothing new. Most LGAs understand what is required to improve our roads. Where they go wrong is in communication.

Recommendations

The issue here is public perception that local authorities are not doing enough to combat potholes. In their eyes, local authorities are incompetent and don’t respond quickly enough to potholes or spend enough on day-to-day maintenance.

There is no smoke without fire, but in our view, the root cause of the matter is that local governments have been responding to the publics’ cries by filling potholes when research into better management should have been given serious attention and investment.

Step 1: Communicate the truth

Unless authorities alter their approach to potholes and infrastructure management, things are going to get worse. Public opinion will continue to decline and complaints rise.

Communications teams and strategists must work to communicate the real cost of responding to demand. And, the reality that potholes are the literal drops in the ocean in road management terms. This is unlikely to be well received but it is critical that the public understands the challenges authorities face in road management, and appreciates that they are capable of making necessary improvements.

Potholes are a poor metaphor for the state of our roads – just as waiting times are for general standards in the NHS. It is the narrow framing of these subjects that makes them the hot topics they have become. They are easy to get angry about because they don’t come with the full story. A broader understanding of the issue may help to diffuse public anger.

Messages must be adopted, by councillors and parish councils alike which communicate the real challenges LGAs face, and perhaps how the public can get involved. 

Step 2: Listen to the experts

Councillors are democratically elected and are done so because they intend to represent the best interests of the voting public. The authorities and administrative staff within them are steered by the will of the public, represented by their councillors.

The problem is that councillors in the whole are not engineers, and it is likely that public pressure and lack of specialist knowledge are key contributors to the poor state of UK roads today.

Councillors who assume role of people’s champion in the eradication of potholes in their area are nothing short of deluded, and worse, hindering progress.

All authorities employ skilled engineers, or external engineering organisations, in the management of their infrastructure. This resource should be tasked with offering solutions to the challenges authorities face. Each authority, wishing to appease an unforgiving public, should publish a 5-year plan for road improvement for public consumption. 

Step 3: Bring it all together

Many authorities function in silo fashion. Duplication of effort is commonplace, and communication of individual work streams between departments scarce.

Authorities must become better communicators, internally and externally, in order to offer joined-up solutions in matters as complex as this.

This will require cross-specialism, cross-department activity, and a dedicated board to ensure consistency, and the appropriate levels of governance.

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Rocca. Creative Thinking advises LGAs on communications, customer experience and digital applications.

 

In early 2015 the organisation produced ‘Report It’ for Buckinghamshire County Council  – A mobile App intended to reduce manual intervention in the reporting and resolution of potholes.