Participation is one of the seven scrutiny super powers because scrutiny can act as a doorway for the public to get involved in council business. Scrutiny is flexible, one step removed from the decision makers and, through scrutiny councillors, already well connected to the public.
If you are thinking about improving how scrutiny involves the public (not forgetting to pay attention to the good work you are doing already), here are some ideas to think about.
A big ten out of ten if you already do them all.
Co-opt lay members
Inviting members of the public onto committees and task and finish groups is a great way to get immediate input and involvement. Check out this Centre for Public Scrutiny housing scrutiny report for examples (I contributed by the way).
Commission the public to do research
Another great idea picked up from the Centre for Public Scrutiny housing scrutiny report was to pay a citizens group (in this case a tenants federation) to conduct the inquiry on behalf of scrutiny. At a smaller scale scrutiny might commission citizens as ‘service inspectors’ or ‘mystery customers’.
Hold informal meetings
Formal committee meetings can be a real barrier to the public getting involved. So why not hold meetings informally in community settings. Or have an informal ‘meet and greet’ with tea and biscuits before the formal committee meetings to hear what people think.
Work with the sharers
Ok, so councils might not be the best at involving the public so why not work with and through the organisations that are good at making the connections between everyone. Councils for voluntary services or the media for example. And of course don’t forget that there are not any people better connected than councillors so make use of them. (see here for more).
Involve the public in your work plan
The public are more like to get involved if scrutiny is looking at the issues that people truly care about. So why not involve the public in setting workplans through surveys or by work planning in public. You can even let the public decide the topics that you will look at – this is something that the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee of the Welsh Assembly did a couple of years ago – they asked the public to pick from one of five topics that the committee had come up with.
Talk to the representative groups
Residents associations, tenants groups, community groups, groups representing parents, carers or anyone else for that matter, can all bring a lot of knowledge about what the people they represent think and feel. So invite them in for a conversation.
Hold public question times
Providing space on agendas for the public to ask questions is a great way to encourage participation. Remember, this works best when people are able to ask questions of decision makers (not just the scrutineers).