BLOG- Public participation par excellence

Posted on 09/10/2023 by Megan Ingle.

Recently our colleague Camilla de Bernhardt-Lane wrote to scrutiny practitioners asking how Council invite public participation in formal committees, to support some thinking she was doing to support a review of public participation at her authority. We at CfGS were also keen to find out how councils work to support local people to make their voice heard in what can sometimes feel like intimidating spaces.

Camilla heard back from around two dozen councils – a good basis for some comparative reflections, and a useful evidence base for this blog.

Before thinking about the practical measure that councils take to facilitate public input at meetings, we have to answer the question of why the public should want and expect to have their voice heard, and why councils should take those expectations seriously.

In a general sense scrutiny has to take steps to understand the perspectives of local people – using those perspectives to inform its work, including its priorities. Direct public insight – provided in person – provides a powerful opportunity for local people to share their thoughts and concerns with locally elected representatives.

There are documented cases (most famously evidenced through the Francis review, and the historic failings attributed to local scrutiny arrangements around the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal) of where this did not happen – and where a failure to listen had significant, real world consequences.

But every scrutineer recognises that the benefit of listening directly to members of the public goes far beyond this alone. Often, the public voice can be diluted – mediated through formal consultations, or through representative or community groups. Hearing that voice directly can even be discouraged, by people who think that it privileges anecdotal experiences (in particular, the experiences of those with the loudest voices, and those who choose to turn up to meetings).

The immediacy of unfiltered views being expressed by a local person, in a public space, with councillors providing a direct response has the potential – managed well and engaged in productively, and in good faith – to give scrutiny vital evidence to support its work.

How councils provide for this varies hugely. There is a general acceptance of the right of the public to address members across a range of council meetings – certainly at full Council, and usually at Cabinet. At scrutiny, the situation is less consistent.

We’ll consider two connected practices: the presence of formal arrangements for the public to ask questions in scrutiny meetings (found in committee procedure rules in the constitution, and often a standing item on agendas), and the presence of scrutiny “ways of working” that invite public input into substantive scrutiny work. 

Asking questions in scrutiny

Mechanisms for asking public questions at scrutiny committees may be little used, and poorly understood. In part this derives from the fact that scrutiny’s role may be little understood beyond the council itself. Councils have found that a member of the public attending a meeting to ask a question (particularly if it does not relate to a subject on the committee’s agenda) may find themselves feeling frustrated when no commitment can be given to provide a resolution. Councillors, too, may find those public interventions unproductive – there is nowhere obvious for the question, or the issue, to “go”. In referring an issue on to another committee or body that could take action, it can feel as if the person asking the questions is being led on a dance through a bureaucratic maze of committees by people keener to pass responsibility to others than they are to take concerted action.

People asking questions are likely to want and need straightforward answers. People making representations will want to know how those representations are being taken into account by politicians, and senior officers, making decisions on their behalf.

Arrangements need to be in place to meet those expectations, but to manage expectations that are broader. Asking a question may not, for example, yield an immediate, comprehensive answer. It may not lead to a detailed committee debate, recommendations, or a decision. Public questions can, however, act as a spur to a scrutiny committee to investigate a subject in more detail.

Councils need to work with people who want might want to ask questions, to help them to understand the existence of these formal limitations and how they might be overcome.

It’s common for scrutiny committees to invite representations only on items on the agenda. This may be provided for during the discussion on the item itself, or at the beginning of the meeting. Often, the time set aside for public questions is not specified, but sometimes generous arrangements (15 or sometimes 30 minutes) are set out in the constitution.

Notice requirements also vary. Some councils require that 3 working days’ notice before the committee meeting is required; some require only 15 minutes’ notice – or no notice at all. There is plenty of variance in between these extremes. There are some outliers which require even longer notice periods, although we would note that taking the requirement for notice above five working days would interfere with members of the public’s need to review the content of the committee agenda before notifying of the question that they want to ask. 

Where notice is required, in some cases a written transcript of the question is also required, particularly if the issue is seen as requiring a specific, written response.

Wider public participation

More purposive public participation – linked to scrutiny’s priorities and work programme – can be seen as (and can be) more productive.

This can start with designing formal meetings in a way that is more inclusive, and arranging for them to be carried out in physical places that are more accessible. Attempts to take scrutiny out of town halls and into the community are as old as scrutiny itself, and are not always successful. This is because a lot rests on shared expectations between councillors, officers and the public themselves, and the creation of an atmosphere of sharing and dialogue which might look rather unlike a typical, formal council meeting.

Comms teams, and professionals skilled in designing engagement and participation mechanisms, are used partners for scrutiny here.

Such public engagement may be linked with wider council engagement work – which itself might involve the use of innovative tools such as citizens’ juries and co-design work for major projects and proposals. We talk about these kinds of arrangements in “Docking in”, research we published in 2022.

Scrutiny can even discard the formality of a conventional business meeting and arrange things like site visits, or visits to attend meetings organised by others.

Whatever form this kind of engagement takes, it is likely to be relatively resource intensive in planning and delivery, and hence less usual. When done well, sessions like this can be a rich source of insight, challenging accepted ideas and provoking new thinking about improvements seen from the point of view of local people.

Whatever arrangements scrutiny has in place should provide the space for public engagement in a range of different forms. Diversity of engagement has the potential to lead to diversity of opinion, and a better range of data points that can lead to better decision-making. Good decisions are based on hindsight, insight and foresight – the views of the public can influence all three, and can make scrutiny more powerful as a result.

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.