Public engagement in local government report19 Jun 2012
Welsh councils are good at asking the public what they think and carry out a great deal of public engagement exercises. But, despite this, many exercises fall short of enabling residents to help shape their local services, according to the Auditor General for Wales.
His report, published today, found that all 22 councils in Wales undertake public engagement activity - mainly focusing on informing and consulting the public about local services. However, there are inconsistencies in the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of engagement. Most councils have not yet fully embedded public engagement into their organisational culture and partnership activities. Monitoring and evaluation are weak and, they also rarely provide feedback to the public on what difference their engagement has made.
Public engagement plays an important role in the democratic process. It increases public confidence in local government activity; provides evidence on which to base decisions; helps give a voice to wide sections of society; and helps to ensure that resources are targeted more effectively.
Today’s report found that Welsh councils are developing their approaches at different rates and in different ways – primarily due to variations in how councils prioritise public engagement and in the capacity and resources they have available to undertake engagement activity.
Councils use a wide variety of methods, but currently tend to focus on more traditional, low-technology methods, such as using media and press, printed material, formal and informal meetings. Nevertheless the use of electronic communications is growing, including social media and mobile phone technology.
The report identifies a number of issues that can impact on the effectiveness of public engagement. These include a lack of knowledge of the most successful, and cost-effective methods and which methods are the most appropriate for a local area and its population. Also, councils do not take advantage of their current systems and services which interact daily with the public, by using them to inform, consult and generally communicate with the public.
The report makes eight recommendations for improvement, including:
- Make use of the wide range of guidance and good practice available to improve the quality and consistency of engagement activity – such as making use of Participation Cymru and adopting the ten National Principles of Public Engagement;
- Councils should work with other public bodies to develop a strategic and coordinated approach to public engagement; and
- Councils should improve the quality and timeliness of feedback to engagement participants and the general public, clearly communicating what has and what has not changed as a result of the engagement activity..
The Auditor General for Wales, Huw Vaughan Thomas said today:
"Now, more than ever, Welsh Councils should be engaging more effectively with citizens. Indeed, all public bodies in Wales should sharpen up their approach as they face the challenge of around £1.6 billion being cut from their budgets between 2010 and 2014. Difficult decisions and choices need to be made – particularly around the reshaping of services. And, it is absolutely crucial that the public should be at the heart of the process. Their views should be properly sought, captured and evaluated – and the rationale behind decisions explained well – in order to help achieve the best possible outcomes for Wales."
Ceri Thomas of the Welsh Government spoke on behlaf of Carl Sargeant, Minister for Local Government and Communities. His speech is available here.