BLOG- Public participation par excellence, by Camilla de Bernhardt Lane, Associate

Posted on 09/10/2023 by Megan Ingle.

Public participation par excellence

Recently I wrote out to colleagues asking for approaches to how Councils invite public participation at Committee. I must begin with a huge thank you to you if you responded! I was very surprised with the response; I think I heard from at least twenty different councils in the end!

Whilst my very specific ask was to inform a review of public participation at Devon County Council, it did prompt me to question how the sector grapples with the tricky topic of hearing the views and perceptions of residents and the relationship with good governance.

Scrutiny must take steps to understand the perspectives of members of the public and use these to make recommendations for change or review. There are documented cases (e.g. Frances review) where this did not happen and Scrutiny was widely condemned as failing in its role to listen, and reflect the concerns of the public. Beyond the requirement, every good scrutineer knows that listening is a key tenement of positive challenge. It helps to develop an understanding of unintended consequences and get a 360-degree view of decisions and policies. But the question endures as to how to best hear these perspectives?

Scrutiny’s mandate to listen, amplify and act upon the views of residents is easier to be said than done. For many Councils, making space at a public committee meeting to hear from the public is a must. However,

there are nuances as to how this is done in practice. There is also the sense that committees only hear from people who are agitated and resisting service change. Often misunderstanding the role and powers that scrutiny has to determine an outcome – no decisions are taken in scrutiny after all.

The main difference in approach at committee across the authorities who replied to me seems to be the debate about whether members of the public should be able to ask questions with the intention of securing an answer or to make representations, for example, about how a service has affected them personally. Asking questions of Scrutiny committees is common, however, there are some challenges that need to be considered. Firstly, the role of scrutiny and that of Cabinet or other decision-making bodies can be confused.  Often associated with this challenge of managing expectations and responsibilities, are questions asked to officers, Cabinet Members, or Scrutiny themselves? This needs to be handled carefully so as to not further confuse the often-misunderstood role of Scrutiny.

Getting answers through the medium of Scrutiny entails that the authority will fulsomely answer these questions.  However, the role of scrutiny is to hold to account – if the public is then holding officers to account the relationship may be blurred. This was mentioned by an authority, who have struggled with members of the public demanding answers from particular members of staff.

It is common to invite representations only on items on the agenda, and to limit time given in the meeting to public representations. This is typically between 15 and 30 minutes, but in some Councils as long as was necessary dedicated to hearing from the public.

Another point of difference is the notice period given by residents, which can vary from 3 working days in advance to up to fifteen minutes before the meetings, with a recognition in one authority the Chair would allow people to turn up on the day without giving notice.  In another council the time frame has recently been dropped from 5 working days to 3 encourage representations. Most Councils that responded do not require a written transcript in advance, some do if the issue requires a written response to support officers in preparing it on an issue-by-issue basis. 

Increasing accessibility of committee meetings to the public by actively changing where committee meetings were held and making them freely available online to watch were also seen as useful to support engagement. There is also clearly a role in working with in-house comms teams to support better understanding and awareness of the role of scrutiny. Beyond speaking at committee and welcoming the public to engage with scrutiny on its terms, there is also a need to engage more fully with public discourse. There are some innovative examples of such approaches, ranging from visits, to focus groups and even citizens juries.

For many Councils undertaking visits, either as standalone or as part of a task group is an effective way to speak to service users and front-line staff. This helps to bring colour and context to recommendations made in the chamber.  Dedicated sessions to hear from members of the public tend to be more issue-led, and sporadic in nature.  They can be resource-heavy but when done well are a rich source of engagement and understanding. In general, thought should also be given into how people can influence the topics that Scrutiny looks at through it’s work programme.

What remains clear is that Scrutiny should actively take steps to hear from all residents. Not just those who engage with authority structures in a reactive way. Diversity of engagement lends itself to diversity of opinion and a better range of data-points to improve decision-making. The best decisions will be based on a combination of hindsight, insight and foresight and therefore enabling the public to be involved in the past, present and future conversations making full-sighted scrutiny a powerful tool.

Do get in touch if you would like to share activities that you have undertaken to increase the reach of your scrutiny activities and to increase engagement.