OPINION21 April 2011

Losing their voice

News Opinion

Scrapping the statutory ‘duty to involve’ is the wrong move at the wrong time, says BritainThinks’ Joe Caluori. Without it, public involvement will slide down local authorities’ to-do lists and citizens risks losing their voice in the debate over public sector cuts.

Broadly speaking I’d side with the second interpretation. We know from our work for local authorities that there is a huge challenge in local government in widening the circle – consulting and involving beyond the usual suspects.

While the duty to involve was far from perfect it did mean that local authorities had a responsibility to seek out the views of a wider cross-section of their community, ensuring that they hear the voices of the quieter parts as well as those who shout the loudest.

Essentially, scrapping the duty to involve means that when taking decisions, local government needs only be able to show they have made some attempt to consult a range of people, organisations and businesses, with the interpretation of whether the consultation is sufficient left in their own hands.

In a climate in which public sector budgets are being severely reduced, public sector workers have to spread their time much more thinly, as they cover work formerly done by departed colleagues. And it therefore follows that involving a wide range of people and organisations in decisions big and small will sink down their to-do list, until it is a last-minute add-on. In addition, the financial pressures facing public bodies will mean that local government will look for low-cost ways to consult and involve which may exclude some harder-to-reach groups.

Some would say that it’s fine for public involvement to slide down the priority list at a time of spending cuts, but in fact it is when resources are short that organisations like local councils need to make extra sure that their decisions reflect the views of people that use their services and the wider community.

Perhaps the current duty to involve is imperfect and could be streamlined – it’s certainly possible to see the argument that if everything is a priority then nothing is. But the truth is it’s impossible to judge the success of a policy that only came into force in April 2009, almost exactly two years ago.

The shift implied by introducing the duty to involve was a cultural one – it was never intended that bus-loads of involvement police would tour public sector organisations. That cultural shift will now be reversed just when it is needed the most, as central government push their ‘Big Society’ programme and spread limited resources around a worried community.

Joe Caluori is research lead for local government at BritainThinks


1 Comment

9 years ago

They haven't proposed to end healthwatch though, even though it is the involvement of people who use local care services this extends to supporting people to have a say on other aspects of public services which impact on health. Shame that local authorities and strategic commissioners don't seem to have realised this till now, and publicly supported LINks in a more whole hearted way prior to this fiasco.

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