Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 400 - 407)




  400. I think we have a very positive proposal emerging here. On Saturday night instead of merely ticking six numbers, we can tick some questions as well. Excellent idea!
  (Mr Dobson-Mouawad) There is another matter which is addressing the point which you have raised. I was smiling at the time purely because I was thinking how difficult it is to devolve power. This is what we are talking about when we are talking about true participation, just to devolve a certain amount of power whether from central to local, from local to neighbourhood, and this is the issue at the heart of the decision-making process. Do those already in control of the power want to devolve their own power? Up to now, a lot of the institutional barriers which we face are to do with people, whether elected or officers within an agency, who believe it is their technical preserve or their mandate to actually make the decisions and not devolve the power or the process to the communities. This is essentially one aspect which we are trying to challenge.

Mr Lepper

  401. I wondered, Chairman, whether Dr Brownill could expand a little on the point that she made? I understood you to say, Dr Brownill, there were changing attitudes within the SRB regime to the notion of participation and how you measured it over the seven years it has run. Is it possible to sum up some of the main changes you have noticed? Could I ask another question to anyone who wants to answer it which has only just come up? None of you so far until Mr Dobson-Mouawad's contribution just now have talked about the role of information technology in the participation process. All of our discussion in an unstated way has been about meetings and people going to meetings to a greater or lesser extent, or taking actions like voting in a referendum or in an election on a particular day as a one-off event. I wonder if collectively you have any thoughts about the information technology link?
  (Dr Brownill) Firstly, on the SRB side, initially a lot of the questions you have raised were levelled at it, that it was just paper consultation, partnerships were not meaningful, but the bidding guidance from central government has been quite key in changing that. For example, there is what is known a bit ominously as Year Zero in which a scheme can have a year in which they do not have to meet any of these outputs which they talk about, they can actually spend that year building up the local community to be able to participate more or getting the information they need. So that is one element of change. The other element, as I say, is the way some, not all, of the Government Offices for the Regions in their monitoring visits to the partnerships, have been very keen to look at how they are actually operating. So that relationship between the regional level and the initiatives has been very important. Also there has been a lot of interchange amongst organisations at community and local level. People have wised up basically and they have started to learn things. There is another issue as well about capacity building. We often talk about capacity building solely for the community for the excluded, but capacity building is about making everybody involved in the democratic process aware of where other people are coming from. So some of the issues we have been talking about have been people excluded from some of the processes going on, why are they excluded, people sitting around the table being aware that the community sector, the private sector, the public sector have very different, what some people have called, styles of power; ways of operating. It is about building an awareness around that, about how the local authorities operate, can involve or exclude and change the way decisions are made on that basis and the way that simple practices like a consultation exercise can be changed. About info-tec, I will just give two examples I know of. It is maybe not on computers but the Housing Action Trust in Castle Vale in Birmingham have a local radio station for their initiative which is putting out information. In Oxford there is a private venture which is the Oxford Channel, which is a TV channel, which again puts out local information. That is two possible ways.
  (Dr Barnes) I have come across examples of telephone conferencing being used particularly with older people who find it difficult to get out of the house; it is an opportunity for connecting people up and enabling them to have conversations. This is not on technology but it is about challenging the notion that all that we are talking about is people going to ever more complex meetings. Some of the most innovative and successful initiatives about public participation have involved people actively being involved in projects working together, whether that be in planning for real exercises where people are working together to "vision" what a community might look like, or on specific local innovative arts projects or whatever. It is actually getting people engaged in activities, working together, so it is not just about meetings.


  402. Could I focus on one thing as we end? We touched on it just now and IT relates to it as well. In your evidence, Dr Barnes, you talk about the need for the implementation of what you call a coherent strategy, and of course we are all in favour of coherent strategies for all kinds of things, but it seems to me that is potentially inconsistent with the horses for courses approach which you have all been urging upon us, the need for local variability, flexibility. How on earth can you have a coherent strategy across the system when everything is so particular?
  (Dr Barnes) That is a response to the question which gets asked time and time again, how do we do it, what is the best way of doing it, and the response is, it depends what it is you want to do. It does directly link back to the horses for courses issue. It is about saying that as long as public participation is seen as a special project, as something that is one person's responsibility to do, that does not really impact on the way in which the whole system works. It is always going to be marginal, it is not really going to make any important difference. So the notion of a coherent strategy is to say that there needs to be a recognition that there are different purposes to be served here, that it requires different approaches to engaging and involving people in order to deliver on those purposes, that it is not simply somebody's job to do this but this is how the system works. That is what we are talking about in relation to a coherent strategy.

  403. Let's assume that you have persuaded all these doubters over here—
  (Dr Barnes) Unlikely, but we will go with it for a while!

  404.—and we all think this is a very good thing and it all needs to be developed much further across all public services, what we would like to end with is some sharp thoughts on what therefore we might do to ensure that outcome. There are lots of initiatives going on, interesting things here and interesting things there, but implied in your observation there is incoherence. If we wanted to have a coherent approach across public services, what would we do?
  (Mr Dobson-Mouawad) You have to first of all quantify the strategic and also the statutory role that different agencies have to participate in the first instance, so you have to quantify what Government already expects of different statutory agencies. That is the first point. There are two aspects to this. There is a statutory aspect and then there is a non-statutory aspect, and we are pushing the system into the non-statutory aspect because clearly the statutory aspect is defined already in legislature. The key aspect here is, once you start looking at the non-statutory aspect—and that is not to say that that aspect should not be statutory in due course—we have to reflect that any initiative which is genuine will have certain generic good practice profiles. Clearly you cannot have a blue-print, you cannot say, "These are the key things you have to do", but what you can certainly do is produce a check list of what is essential, what is desirable, and create a weighting system against the different types of work that you do to actually create the matrix of assessments.

  405. A good practice guide?
  (Mr Dobson-Mouawad) Not purely a good practice guide, because we want to get to the point where at the very least whatever gets produced ought to act as guidance not purely as a good practice guide to put on the shelf.

  406. Who should produce this?
  (Mr Dobson-Mouawad) There is no doubt in my mind it has to be from the central administration, government.
  (Ms Christie) There is an issue here which falls into the joined-up government debate, which you may or may not want to get into, but one of the barriers to effective working on the ground is that the different departments tend to use different terminology and have different expectations over timescale and style of working which, at the front line when trying to work across local agencies with communities and individuals, can get very confusing both for front line workers and for the community on the receiving end of it. So there is perhaps a fairly simple intervention there and maybe the kind of neighbourhood renewal social exclusion unit work could be the focus for that—some consistency of terminology and understanding of what we are talking about. The second issue which I feel is very important is that we do not set up this opposition between representative democracy and participative democracy. I find that a very unhelpful opposition. It is a construct. What we are talking about is getting the best out of our democracy, and participation and supporting participation needs to be part of that. If local councillors are given a message which says, "This is a threat to you, this is about undermining representative democracy", then we are not going to achieve very effective participation on the ground.
  (Dr Barnes) There is another quite practical thing which I think is necessary and that relates to the education and training agenda. Particularly thinking from the perspective of the Health Service, the way in which health professionals are trained is very important in terms of their perceptions of themselves as, "We are the experts, any attempts to question our expert knowledge is not legitimate." The way in which health and other professionals can be trained to understand their role as one of shared decision-making with their patients, with their service users, I think is fundamentally important in terms of starting to deliver on this.
  (Dr Brownill) We are not at the stage of having an over-arching, monolithic structure for consultation across a whole range of services yet, and it probably is not feasible. I teach housing managers and community care is very much about the interface between housing, health and social services, and just getting those agencies together and to agree an agenda and a language is very difficult and takes a lot of time. I think it is much better to think of starting at these points where we can try and build up those things like regeneration, like certain of the health services, but having an over-arching consultation is too hopeful at this stage but it might be a long-term aim.
  (Dr Barnes) Picking up the cynicism about the likelihood of there being a substantial change in the training of health professionals, we in our department run multi-disciplinary postgraduate courses for mental health workers and service users are involved in the educational training of those health workers. The example I was talking about with the work of frail older people in Scotland, some of the older people who are members of those panels were invited to take part in training GPs by the local university. There has been discussion in the context of the patient partnership strategy led by the Department of Health with the Royal Colleges about involving service users, patients, in professional training. So it might feel like this is something which cannot be shifted, but there are chinks. I think you are going to get a new generation of health professionals who are currently undergoing training who are going to have very different views about this sort of thing.
  (Mr Dobson-Mouawad) From my perspective, the development of participation of communities in the regeneration process has purely come about as a result of Government guidance on regeneration processes and bids and so forth. If it was not for that guidance, I do not believe we would have got to this point. This is why I identified that the future is also reliant on further guidance to take the process forward.
  (Dr Brownill) It is about having key principles rather than a blue-print.
  (Mr Dobson-Mouawad) Exactly. It is not a blue-print but it has to have guidance.
  (Dr Brownill) And they have to be principles where there can be intervention to monitor and ensure they are actually happening.

  407. The little ditty which came out of the 1960s was, "I participate, you participate, we participate, they decide." A conjugation of the verb. Why do you think it is that those who have been around this issue for a long time, enthusiasts for it, when asked, describe it in glowing democratic terms; but that meets such wholesale cynicism about the very idea of participation on the ground? Is it not the case that bad participation, of which there is much, gives the whole idea a bad name?
  (Dr Brownill) I think it comes down to power. I think it is also about this issue of clarity. Too often people have been asked, "What do you want out of this? What you say will happen" and it does not. I think it is much better to say to people, "We are consulting on this but the decision is going to be made by these people, this is how your views are going to be taken into consideration", rather than building false expectations. What some people call apathy is often as a result of that.
  (Mr Dobson-Mouawad) I think realism is the key aspect here. If you ask somebody what they would like and they produce a shopping list, of course their expectations have been heightened and they are not going to get what they are being asked. The key aspect is to consult and to engage in the process within parameters. If you actually ask them, "Would you like more money being spent on X, Y and Z?", of course they will say, "Yes, yes, yes", but if you say, "We have X amount of money and you have to decide whether it should be channelled into this, this or this", you give more credence to guiding the way of investment.
  (Dr Barnes) One area which we have not talked about and it has just struck me is the way in which children and young people are developing more opportunities in the context of schools to experience participation—the development of school councils, junior SRB boards, a whole range of initiatives—whereby children and young people are being invited to act as citizens at a very early age. If we are thinking about looking to the future rather than seeing what has been the situation in the past, I think this is going to be a really important set of experiences which young people are going to have which hopefully will change the sort of response you have described there, because people are going to grow up expecting this is part of the way things are happening.

  Chairman: That is probably a positive note on which to end.

  Mr Townend: Or a depressing note!

  Chairman: Thank you all, both for your written evidence and for coming along and talking to us today. We have had a very interesting and helpful conversation. Thank you very much for your time.

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