Just back from holiday and straight back into the fast lane. Go up to North East for the APSE Northern AGM and seminar at Yarm and we have a strategic forum dinner on Citizen Engagement, Governance and Service Delivery.
The idea of the dinners are we get a small group of senior people together and have a guest speaker deliver on a current topical subject, then we have a high quality debate with all present expected to make a contribution to the discussion. I wasn't to be disappointed, we started just before 8pm and the Chair had to close the debate at 10.30pm. One of the main catalysts for the success was the IPPR's excellent Duncan Hiscock who as guest speaker delivered 20 minutes of his thoughts on Citizen Engagement. This really provoked an interesting debate amongst the Councillors and Officers present from Warrington, Stockport, Hartlepool, Rochdale and APSE.
Duncan had covered issues such as how do we involve? why should we? what outcomes and targets are we looking for? the anxiety around democratic governance created with this agenda and how we place the user at the heart of the service. Initially a lot of cynicism existed amongst those present as it always feels like nobody gives you any recognition of the good work that exists at present on engagement.
Points were raised about the expectation this agenda can create and then the disappointment that can occur when finances mean you can't fully deliver what people want; about quango's and voluntary groups being unrepresentative, having no democratic mandate and that this feels like an ongoing erosion of democracy; and that many of the public are apathetic about engagement, sometimes when they are engaged they are wrong (reference alternative weekly collections) and ultimately who makes the difficult choices when resources are scarce.
It was also recognised however that in the public sector the professional power and we know best attitude can limit real engagement. Those present agreed that it was important to gather a wide range of views and ensure that you also reach the quietest voices. Discussion took place around how we harness the knowledge that is gathered on the frontline from those who deliver services at the point of consumption.
The conclusion at the end was probably that the public don't want to be engaged on every issue, mainly they just want good services at a reasonable price, but they do want a say on the important ones and when major changes are due to take place. They also want good communication on issues that effect their everyday life's and to help shape the high quality public services which they consume on a regular basis.
In my view delivery has become overly diverse and if real engagement is to be facilitated and take place then representative democracy has got to be the glue that binds everything together.