77.Earlier in this report, we discussed the need for scrutiny committees to have greater legitimacy and independence from their executives. A key way of delivering this is to ensure that members of the public and local stakeholders play a prominent role in scrutiny. By involving residents in scrutiny, the potential for a partisan approach lessens and committees are able to hear directly from those whose interests they are representing. Many local authorities have been very successful in directly involving their residents through open meetings, standing agenda items and public appeals for scrutiny topics. Other authorities, and indeed parliamentary select committees, can learn from such positive examples.
78.Devon County Council argues that “Scrutiny serves as almost the only bastion of opportunity for local people to voice an opinion on changes to a wide range of services, not just those provided by the Council.” The authority also cites an example where scrutiny considered a national issue which had a local manifestation. Search and Rescue services were previously provided by RAF Chivenor, but when this changed “Local People were very concerned about the loss of the service and scrutiny reviewed the evidence in an independent way. The subsequent report helped to reassure local people that the evidence supported the change as well as to establish a baseline from which to challenge future incidents.”
79.At its most effective, we believe that scrutiny amplifies the concerns of local residents and of service users. A positive example of this is in Exeter where the City Council established a ‘Dementia Friendly Council’ task and finish group. As part of its work, the group “invited members of the Torbay Dementia Leadership Group to visit the Customer Service Centre to observe the front line service and facilities from the point of view of a person with dementia and to see if the Council could make any improvements to the existing customer experience.” Subsequent recommendations to improve the service have since been made.
80.At our workshop with councillors and officers, one councillor explained that she did not like the term ‘public engagement’ and instead preferred to think of it as ‘listen and learn’. This approach was evident in the example of Surrey County Council, cited by the LGA. Surrey conducted extensive pre-decision scrutiny of the authority’s cycling strategy to help inform the final strategy. Following an independent consultation, it was apparent that there were mixed views on the proposals within the strategy and a joint meeting of two scrutiny committees was held to consider them, with a public forum to allow residents to express their views. The outcome was a better-informed and more successful strategy:
Having heard and considered the voice and concerns of the public on the Council’s proposed Cycling Strategy, the committees made recommendations to ensure the final strategy was acceptable to Surrey residents. These included: ensuring benefits for local businesses; including cycling infrastructure schemes on highways maintenance programmes; lobbying central government so that unregulated events were regulated; working with boroughs & districts to develop cycling plans; and amending the strategy to ensure roads would only be closed with strong local support.
81.The examples above are illustrations of the value that greater public involvement can bring both to the scrutiny process and an authority’s decision making process. However, we are also aware that the majority of scrutiny committees across the country are not well-attended by the public. Involving the public in scrutiny is time and resource intensive, but the rewards can be significant. In this context, it should also be noted that many members of the public do not want to engage with public services in the same way that they used to. Digital engagement is becoming increasingly important, with some councils embracing new media better than others (for example the twitter feed of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council recently received national attention for effective engagement regarding the naming of two gritters). Jacqui McKinlay told us:
There are some real challenges about what public engagement looks like in the future. It is not necessarily the village hall where we are expecting people to turn up on a wet Wednesday. We need to start to accept that when we engage with people they do not necessarily always speak the same language as we do, particularly on contentious issues. People are very angry. They are very upset. In scrutiny and public services generally, we have to think about what engagement looks like in the future. We are also in a digital and social media world where the conversations now, probably in the last six months, are happening in WhatsApp. They were happening in Facebook earlier. That is something that scrutiny is really going to have to manage if it is going to stay relevant and part of the dialogue.
82.The Government should promote the role of the public in scrutiny in revised and reissued guidance to authorities, and encourage council leaderships to allocate sufficient resources to enable it to happen. Councils should also take note of the issues discussed elsewhere in this report regarding raising the profile and prominence of the scrutiny process, and in so doing encourage more members of the public to participate in local scrutiny. Consideration also need to be given to the role of digital engagement, and we believe that local authorities should commit time and resources to effective digital engagement strategies. The LGA should also consider how it can best share examples of best practice of digital engagement to the wider sector.
80 Devon County Council () page 2
81 Exeter City Council () para 7
82 Local Government Association () paras 13.5–13.7
83 Local Government Association () paras 13.5–13.7
84 “David Plowie or Spready Mercury? Council asks public to name its new gritters”, The Telegraph, 17 November 2017
14 December 2017