Talking about talking
Reading the recent WLLG post on the way in which councils talk to local people brought back some unpleasant memories for me. I used to be a scrutiny officer. Without knowing much (ok, anything) about the art or science of “community engagement” I and my colleagues, with backbench Members, periodically organised public meetings to inform scrutiny committees’ views on various topics of local interest.
One particularly good one was on the subject of a high-profile local community event. The council and a number of other “local partners” – including the police – wanted to make some significant changes to the way it was run. Predictably, local people – including the organisers of the event – didn’t. Predictably, there was a massive bunfight, generating far more heat than light. We found it difficult – practically impossible, in fact – to get through the agenda, because attendees kept butting in and heckling. It was all the chairman could do to keep order. In the end we got through it but it was a hairy experience and I, as a relatively junior officer, wiped my brow and silently vowed to myself that I’d never do it again.
More recently I experienced the issue from the other side. I went to a local community meeting, organised by the local authority, as a member of the public. It was a bizarre and depressing experience. Contributions “from the floor” were highly limited and most of the evening was given over to dull, technical presentations by officers which, had I not had a local government background, I’d have been hard pressed to understand. The meeting itself went smoothly but the small number of people in the room and the fact that many of the questions being asked by others in the audience were utterly unconnected with the formal agenda made me worry about whether such meetings actually accomplish anything useful – or accurately represent the issues that people really want to talk about.
Part of our problem as professionals is that we like to keep control. Although we pay lip service to the need to consult with local people, we secretly know that we, as the experts, really know best. We dislike “consulting” people on proposals because it’s risky. Our managers want us to make things watertight before they go out to the public to minimise the risk of things “going wrong” and reflecting badly on the council.
But this is to look at the problem from the wrong angle. The reason why the public are often antagonistic towards their council, when it approaches them for “views” on something, is that it is done entirely on the council’s terms.
Authorities set up their own structures for “consultation”, worried that piggybacking onto existing local community networks will make the results of any local consultation less representative. Consultation happens at the wrong time – not when you are starting to examine an issue for the first time, exploring how you might solve problems, but when a wide range of technical evidence has been gathered and the supposed answer has been cobbled together by officers who are not going to be hugely willing to change their views at this late stage in the decision-making process.
Why, then, don’t we speak to local people earlier? Instead of saying, “We invite your comments on this draft Development Plan Document which deals with the planning issues surrounding the provision of social housing in the borough”,. Why don’t we instead say, “We’re thinking about changing our planning policies on social housing – what do you think we should do?”. Or – even worse – “What do you think that we should do to make your life better?”
And, as and when we do this, why not make it an actual dialogue? Too often, consultation is a one-way street – we expect people to come to us with their thoughts and then we give nothing back. Would it be so difficult to keep up a conversation with those we’ve spoken to in the past, telling them if we’ve decided to take their opinions on board and change our course accordingly – and if not, why not?
I still work in scrutiny – albeit now at national level. One thing which has come home to me by looking at work across very many councils is that, so often, poor work is caused by poor communication. I have lost count of the number of scrutiny reviews which have recommended that steps be taken to communicate more clearly, and more consistently, with local people. So it is dispiriting when recommendations like this are ignored – particularly as they come from people who, arguably, have their finger more on the pulse of local people than any others – local councillors.
Too often councillors are cut out of consultation exercises when they should be central to them – acting as mediators between the council and local people. Without wishing to sound too much like a policy wonk (even though I happen to be one), councillors should be regarded as the “democratic wing” of the Big Society. In my ideal world, even with more responsibilities and opportunities to run services going to local communities, the scrutiny function more generally would play a central role – as an investigative function that sits as a part of, but apart from, the rest of the council.
This gives local people an assurance that, by using and contributing to this transparent, objective and independent form of evidence-gathering and analysis, their views will be given credence and treated seriously. Scrutiny has the freedom and flexibility to go beyond traditional forms of “consultation”, going out into the community in a meaningful way and, because elected members are doing the work, bringing valuable local intelligence to the discussion that you might not garner with a top-heavy, process-driven “consultation exercise”.
I know that this sounds like a forlorn hope – and that many officers are cynical of scrutiny and what it can bring to the table. In order to play a strong part it’s certainly the case that scrutiny itself needs to up its game in many authorities.
However, many councils are leaps and bounds ahead of the example I gave at the beginning of this piece, and, consistently, they’re getting better and better. Scrutiny has taught many authorities – those who are willing to listen – about the value of bringing formal accountability and community engagement together, to give some reality to the idea that residents really can influence how decisions are made.
If you work in local government, why not drop your friendly local scrutiny officer (if your council still has one) a line? Have a discussion about how you can bring councillors and the public into the policies you are developing, and how doing so can give you an extra level of assurance to the research and evidence-gathering you are carrying out.
Then all you have to do is persuade senior managers to go along with it. Sorry – I can’t help you with that part.