Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the London Borough of Barnet

We are pleased to respond to your invitation to submit evidence to the Committee.

  The first paper below sets out details of some of the specific initiatives undertaken by Barnet Council in order to increase and improve our dialogue with local people. It is not exhaustive and there are many others, including our website, our annual Environment Conference, our Youth Advisory Committees and others. If the Committee would find it helpful we would be pleased to provide further details of these.

  The second paper has been prepared by our Head of Public Consultation and contains his thoughts on some of the issues which you will be considering. He is currently undertaking a PhD on Relationship Marketing and Local Government, and has studied some of these issues. We are happy to support the submission of this paper to you.

  Please contact me if you would like any further information of if we can be of help in any way.

Rita Dexter

Director of Community Development


  Barnet set up their Citizens' Panel in November 1997.


  The panel is made up of 1,000 electors selected at random from the electoral register. They are representative of the adult population of the whole of the borough.


  The set-up cost of the panel was approximately £10,000. It was originally thought that we would put the set up of the panel out to an external company, but it proved to be too expensive. Our Computer Department set up a programme to select 10,000 residents from the electoral register at random and also set up an initial recruitment database in MS Access. Approximately 1,500 people accepted our initial invitation to join the panel. The recruitment database was then sent to the external company who used this to match returned recruitment questionnaires and set up the panel database.

  The recruitment questionnaire was designed, printed and despatched using internal resources.


    —  Two omnibus surveys a year (financed centrally)—£8,314

    —  Newsletter (three a year)—       £2,820

    —  Recruitment-maintenance—       £4,858

    —  Total—       £15,992


    —  Omnibus surveys

    —  Ad hoc surveys

    —  Focus Groups

    —  Conferences


    —  It provides a ready made borough-wide sample to consult on key issues rather than having to recruit each time on a one off basis which makes it very cost effective in the long term.

    —  As well as being used for one off consultations, the panel can also be used to see how people's views change over time on particular issues.

    —  The panellists have all volunteered to talk to us about our services and other matters of local interest. This means we get a much better than average response to requests for information or invitations to focus groups or deliberative workshops.

    —  The sample size of the panel means that, with a typical response rate of 65 per cent, any percentages of error derived from Panel data will be subject to a margin of error of no more than four per cent either way, and often less than that.

    —  As we have the addresses of all panellists we can do area or ward analysis.

    —  If we are in a hurry we can commission a telephone poll using the panel.

    —  We try and use the panel to encourage partnerships with other public sector agencies. Barnet Health Authority has already used the panel twice.

    —  The panel can be used as a control for other surveys carried out.

    —  The panel involves a relatively large number of people—if a third are rotated each year this will help create a "habit of citizenship" among Barnet's residents.


  The following issues must be considered when establishing a panel:

    —  Survey topics need to be identified well in advance by the council and/or its partners and the surveys must be undertaken at regular intervals.

    —  If the questionnaire changes too much the possibility of assessing changes in attitudes through comparative studies over time is restricted, if not lost. Keeping changes to a minimum with an annual review of all questions, for example, should limit the impact on comparative studies.

    —  The major difficulty, once the panel has been recruited, is keeping such a large group going and ensuring it remains representative.

  When maintaining a panel the following issues need to be addressed:

Drop out rate

  The Panel experiences a drop out rate of at least 10 per cent annually. Though the panel reduces naturally in size other factors may influence this, for example, lack of interest from members, ineffective feedback of survey results and panel members that move out of the area.

Unrepresentative of the population

  Due to the drop out rate the panel is susceptible to becoming unrepresentative of the population. Particular attention is required when recruiting the replacement proportion so as to match the demographic profile of the whole population of the borough.


  Panel members may withdraw whilst in the middle of conducting a survey thereby affecting the response rate. Bradford Council includes a section in every questionnaire which gives the member an opportunity to resign from the panel. This informs the Council immediately of any changes and saves on cost.

Selection of new panel members

  As the panel membership decreases over time additional recruitment must take place so that the panel remains representative of the population. Recruitment for new panel members takes place on a yearly basis.

Expert panel members

  If panel members are allowed to remain on the panel continuously there is a high probability that they will become experts on council services. As a consequence, the panel soon becomes unrepresentative and aspirations of members could be out of line with the population as a whole as they become knowledgeable about council services. Barnet has decided that panel members will have to resign after three years and we are therefore planning to replace a third of the panel each year. This overcomes the problem of "panel experts".


  Although panel members are selected to be representative of the total electorate in demographic terms, they share one characteristic that makes them atypical—they are sufficiently interested in local affairs to make a commitment to being surveyed on a regular basis. This puts them in a minority of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the population (see comment in the personal perspective, attached). There is no easy solution to this problem, but it needs to be borne in mind when assessing panel findings.


  Barnet Council has become one of the first authorities in the country to respond to the government's call to modernise local government and set up a totally new decision-making structure.

  At the heart of this new structure are Area Forums which provide a platform for all residents to have their say on any aspect of council services and to comment on council plans and proposals before decisions are made. Local government must listen to its communities and the new Area Forums provide residents with the opportunity to tell the council their views on services.

  Many issues raised by residents are relevant to where they live, rather than the borough as a whole. In response to this the council takes its Area Forum meetings out into the community, they are not based at the main council buildings.

  The Forums are chaired by local councillors and council officers also attend. There is no set agenda and the Chair takes contributions from the floor in order to decide what will be discussed, depending on what issues residents wish to raise. The Chair also reports back on what has happened with problems or issues raised at the last meeting.

  Area Forums have been a success story in Barnet. Each meeting is regularly attended by over 50 residents, and in some cases, over 100. Feedback from residents has been extremely positive. They welcome being able to talk to officers and councillors directly, and about issues relating to the area where they live.

  Drawbacks are that some residents who wish to raise personal issues do not feel able to do so in the environment of the Area Forum. The meetings also find it difficult to engage with some policy or strategic issues, such as the Unitary Development Plan for example, which the council would like to raise with residents. Other methods have to be found to complement the Forums in these cases.


  Service areas within the council regularly use focus groups, formed from local residents, to discuss and get views on a particular service or issue. The groups are generally made up of members of the council's Citizens Panel, which allow the focus groups to be representative of the borough's population. These are extremely useful in exploring the breadth of views, attitudes, behaviour or motives, and have proved a valuable tool in helping to focus services on the needs of residents. They are a key part of Barnet's consultation in connection with Best Value.

  The council has used focus groups to discuss its complaints procedures, community care, children's services, refuse collection, traffic, transport, parking and trading standards, to name but a few. The only drawback of using focus groups is that one cannot be 100 per cent sure the results are typical of the majority of residents. Focus groups also need to be managed by trained facilitators. Focus groups can otherwise be easily dominated by two or three residents, who do not give anyone else the chance to give their opinion.


  At the beginning of January 1999 the council consulted on its budget for the first time on a borough-wide basis. Unlike other authorities Barnet did not ask any specific questions on whether the council tax should go up, down or remain the same, but based the consultation on the council's corporate themes.

  The council wanted to give residents every opportunity to have their say and devised a number of consultation methods to enable this to happen. These were electronic voting (Powervote); questionnaire to all households in the borough; the council's website; roadshows in public areas and presentations to organisations and groups in the borough.

  Barnet Council was the first authority in England and Wales to use Powervote machines to record the views of residents. These have previously only been used for elections. The Powervote machines were placed in public venues such as supermarkets, shopping centres and libraries and staffed by officers from the council.

  Our experience was that these machines have a great deal to offer for voting purposes, ie elections, referendums or some local consultations where there are simple choices to be made, but that they lend themselves less well to public consultations of a more complex nature. We will not be using the Powervote machines for consultations again in the near future, but this is for budgetary reasons not because of dissatisfaction with the technology.

  Additionally leaflets with a questionnaire were distributed to every single household in the borough as well as being placed in libraries and council offices.

  Finally the council used its website to promote the consultation, with visitors to the site able to complete the questionnaire on-line.

  A borough-wide consultation requires a great deal of preparation and co-ordination and can be costly, especially in officers' time. In general no authorities which consult on their budget get a response rate of over 2 per cent, a typical figure for such a large consultation. To try and encourage a better response on its next budget consultation, Barnet Council intends to focus more on the roadshows in public venues as a way of meeting residents who live in the borough at first hand.

The implications of innovatory consultation and participation techniques for representative government and the potential for such innovations to strengthen the democratic process


  Consultation has at least four different rationales:

    —  Consumerism.

    —  Democracy.

    —  Public service orientation.

    —  Education in citizenship.

  All four are valid, and consultation should be promoted vigorously, despite the danger that different players might have different understandings of what is involved in a consultation exercise.

  Participation is not the same as consultation, which is one rung on the ladder of participation.

  Participation in government is a minority interest, and it is unrealistic to expect to change this overnight. Nonetheless, a strategy is put forward for encouraging participation, particularly in local government.

John May

7 December 1999

The implications of innovatory consultation and participation techniques for representative government and the potential for such innovations to strengthen the democratic process

A personal perspective by John May, Corporate Public Consultation Officer, London Borough of Barnet, and PhD student at Middlesex University Business School.


  Consultation can serve a variety of different political objectives equally well—of itself consultation is "theory-neutral".

    The drive towards a more active engagement of people in their local state, whether as service users or as local citizens, is stronger now than ever before . . . whether the concern is with better services, individual rights, public accountability or democratisation, encouraging and establishing people's involvement is central to them all. (Chelliah, 1995, p3).

  There are at least four different rationales for consultation:

    —  Consumerism.

    —  Democracy.

    —  Public service orientation.

    —  Education in citizenship.

  Each rationale leads to a different conclusion about the scope and application of consultation.


  Consumerism, using consultation as market research, is the dominant mode in local government at present, and set to grow even more dominant. Characteristic techniques include Citizens Panels, focus groups, resident surveys and other types of customer satisfaction survey, including mystery shopping where it is practised.

  The arguments for using market research are linked to Public Choice theory, which sees local government as the provider of basic services and nothing more. On this basis, the role of the member of the public is as consumer of public services rather than citizen.

  Whether or not one accepts this limited vision of the role of local government, the argument for using customer experiences and attitudes to provide services that are more in tune with what the service users actually want is a very compelling one.

  Indeed it is possible to argue (May and Newman, 1999) that marketing itself, not just market research should be a new organising principle for local government. If this comes about, then market research will become more prominent than it is now, and consultation will become accepted as an integral part of service planning and provision.


  Consultation can also be seen as a practical expression of direct democracy. Consultation, on this view, empowers the citizen and gives him/her a direct say in the decisions that are taken, cutting out the middleman. At the same time there is nowadays

    no longer a presumption in favour of the institutional framework of local government as a promoter of democratic accountability. The very idea of local democracy is changing from one of simply political representation (indirect democracy) to one that also includes universal individual participation in decision-making (direct democracy). (Bailey, 1993, p9)

  On the other hand, it is questionable whether this is what people actually want. The "contemporary theory of democracy" is characterised by the competition of leaders (elites) for the votes of the people at periodic, free elections. (Pateman, 1970)

  In between elections the elites are expected to get on with the business of governing and running services, and they are not expected to keep returning to the people and effectively asking for direction. Most local government consulters will be familiar with the sentiment that "we elected the councillors and now we expect them to go away and do the job we pay them for".

  On this reading, consultation needs to be kept at a fairly low level. Indeed, Pateman points up the apparent paradox that

    for the democratic system to remain stable, the level of participation by the majority should not rise much above the minimum necessary to keep the democratic method (electoral machinery) working. (Pateman, 1970. p14)

  In other words, too much consultation can upset the prevailing pattern of periodic competition between elites. Market research is tolerable, but there is the ever present danger of "raising public expectations", by planting the idea that the public are entitled to something more than the elite is willing (or able?) to deliver.

Public service orientation

  The dominant ethos in local government is traditionally that of public service, which Kieron Walsh defined as

    . . . based upon the simple idea that local authorities should provide services for and with people not simply to them . . . It is not for the professionals alone to decide that a service is needed, how it is to be provided, and whether needs have been met; the wants of citizens, and their judgements on the adequacy of service are at least as important as those of the experts. (Walsh, 1989, p6)

  The role of consultation in this setting is quasi-political. It can be used to give a voice to the less powerful groups in society such as women, black and minority ethnic people, those with disabilities, older people and lesbians and gay men.

  This kind of consultation is a deliberate attempt to redress the political balance of power in favour of the more marginalised, and it is intuitively appealing as a mechanism to both Members and officers who possess a public service orientation.

  But public service carries the connotation of service of collective rather than individual interests. This dovetails rather neatly with the idea of consulting with groups (of marginalised people) rather than with the individuals themselves.

  The advantage of relying on a group such as one of these is that the hard work of identifying a target population, bringing it together and establishing a consensus view for onward transmission to the Council has already been taken care of by someone else.

    The scope for councils to build and maintain an ongoing relationship with people who are self organised in voluntary groups is much greater than it could ever be with individual members of the public (Chelliah, 1995, p6)

  The drawback is of course the question mark over the representativeness of views that have been refracted through several layers of voluntary sector bureaucracy.

Education in citizenship

  In English local government elections only some 40 per cent of citizens vote, compared with turnouts in the 80s and 90s in countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Italy and Luxembourg (Rallings, Thrasher and Downe, quoted in Corbett and Murray, 1997). In addition some groups such as the middle classes appear to benefit disproportionately from publicly provided services (Bailey, 1993).

  There is a strong case to be made for more or less anything which increases citizen involvement, and in particular for increasing turnout at elections. It can be argued that consulting people will lead to an increase in their level of involvement and consequently an increase in their willingness to vote.

  However, there is little evidence that this actually happens. Consultation has been steadily increasing over the last couple of decades, while electoral turnout has been falling. Perhaps the public dissociates consultation from citizen involvement, so that there is little or no carry over from the one activity to the other.

  Despite this, the experience of attending a public meeting (particularly one where the subject under discussion is a controversial one) can make one long for more education in citizenship. The newer, more sophisticated forms of public consultation, such as citizens' juries and deliberative polls, offer some hope of educating at least some members of the public in techniques of consensus building and conflict resolution. Hopefully these will ultimately lead to a raising in the standard of public debate—and maybe to increased electoral turnout!


  The chameleon quality of consultation, enabling it to take on a variety of colourings, is a great strength. It means that it is relatively easy to promote the idea, and this can and should be done as vigorously as possible. All four rationales outlined earlier can contribute to the democratic process, regardless of one's stance on consultation.

  The drawback is that confusion can arise, and the promoters of consultation can have one rationale in mind, while the consultees can have another. This is particularly noticeable in certain public meetings, where the promoters intend a consumerist style airing of views, but the audience believes they are taking part in a binding referendum.


  The terms "consultation" and "participation" are often linked together, as if they were interchangeable. There is in fact a profound difference between the two with participation being the generic term for a differentiated series of activities, often referred to as the "ladder of participation", with consultation as one of the rungs on the ladders.

  The ladder itself originated with Shelley Arnstein in 1989, but has been modified and adapted to the UK context several times since. David Riley prepared the attached diagram for the Local Government Management Board.

  It is an open question whether most people actually want to participate in government. Response rates to consultation exercises on new council structures can be as low as one per cent, which hardly suggests a burning interest. Low electoral turnouts and the reported difficulty some areas have in finding enough volunteers to stand for election to vacant Council seats also suggest a generally low level of desire to participate.

  Pateman argues that this is not to be wondered at:

    . . . "participation", so far as the majority is concerned, is participation in the choice of decision-makers. Therefore the function of participation . . . is solely a protective one; the protection of the individual from arbitrary decisions by elected leaders and the protection of his private interests. (Pateman, 1970, p14)

  The Local Government Centre at Warwick Business School commissioned a survey of 2,488 adult residents in 42 local authorities. One of the findings of this survey was that just over a fifth (21 per cent) of interviewees said that they would like to have more of a say in what the Council does, and the services it provides. (Martin et al, 1998)

  "Having a say" can mean many different things. If we take willingness to join a citizens panel as a measure of commitment to participation, then the evidence from Barnet (15 per cent acceptance rate) and other local authorities is that no more than 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the population is willing to make even this fairly low key kind of commitment.


  It seems unrealistic to expect that a deep-seated attitude such as reluctance to participate in government can be changed overnight. That is not to say that we should do nothing. At the least we can make it easier for the minority to engage with the processes of government.

  An outline strategy for doing this is as follows:

    —  Assume that some people will graduate from consultation to participation if it is made possible for them to do so. With this in mind, promote consultation on every practical occasion.

    —  Keep records of the people who respond to consultations, and send them invitations to more participative activities.

    —  Use spontaneous campaigns on local issues to "recruit" the more active local residents into something more enduring than a one-off campaign. (Although there needs to be some kind of locally based participation structure in place already if this is to work.)

    —  Develop cross-referrals from one kind of participative activity to another. Local Agenda 21 Partnerships, community development schemes, tenant participation initiatives, citizens' juries and Residents Associations all offer scope for cross-referrals and overlapping memberships.

    —  Make greater use of the more participative and empowering forms of consultation, such as citizens' juries and deliberative polls. (For more details, see Professor John Stewart's series of papers on Innovation in Democratic Practice.)

    —  Devolve local government decision-making by allocating real money to local groups. There is no better way to demonstrate a commitment to encouraging participation—subject of course to the necessary safeguards when dealing with public money.

    —  Look outside the local authority as well as within it. Both the Health Service and the Police, to name but two other local services, have a strong commitment to consultation and, increasingly, to participation.

    —  Recognise that for some of us government is a full-time preoccupation, but for most it is a part-time interest. Legitimise and facilitate patterns of dropping into and out of participation.

    —  Use Councils of Voluntary Service to advise on, or to deliver this kind of strategy for participation. The voluntary sector has years of experience of working with people whose commitment and availability fluctuates, and who cannot be compelled.

    —  Encourage greater participation in other walks of life. In schools, for instance, and in the workplace. There is evidence to show that the effect is cumulative, and that more participation in one area leads to a greater sense of "political efficacy" in others as well. (Pateman, 1970, p50).

John May

7 December 1999


  Bailey, S J (1993) "Public choice theory and the reform of government in Britain: from government to governance" Public Policy and Administration 8 (2), p7-24.

  Chelliah, R (1995) Consulting and Involving the Public: good practice in local authorities London: LGIU.

  Corbett, D & Murray, H (1997) Towards Democratic Renewal: Fife Council's Citizenship Commission and Citizens Jury Glenrothes: Fife Council.

  Martin, S et al (1998) "best Value Baseline Report" Warwick Business School/ DETR Best value Paper Number 4 Warwick: Local Government Centre, University of Warwick.

  May, J and Newman, K (1999) "Marketing: A New Organising Principle for Local Government?" Local Government Studies 25 (3), p16-35

  Pateman, C (1970) Participation and Democratic Theory Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

  Riley, D Customer-Citizen Involvement Luton: LGMB, Introduction.

  Stewart, J (1995) Innovation in Democratic Practice Birmingham: Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

  Stewart, J (1996) Further Innovation in Democratic Practice Birmingham: Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

  Walsh, K (1989) Marketing in Local Government Harlow: Longman with LGTB.


Adapted from:

    David Riley for the Local Government Management Board. Luton, no date

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