Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Cambridgeshire County Council


1.  Cambridgeshire County Council uses a range of means to improve citizens' understanding of, and participation, in decision making. The Council's Listening and Involving Strategy has been a useful way of drawing these together and stimulating new activity. Key aspects of the strategy are:

    —  Cambridgeshire Citizens' Panel—a representative sample of 2,100 adult residents surveyed three or four times a year on a range of issues affecting the Council. Topics include the level of Council Tax, policy priorities, satisfaction with Council services overall and detailed questions on particular services as part of the Council's programme of Best Value reviews. The survey is run for the Council by an independent market research company.

    —  Ongoing programme of awareness raising/consultation with the public and key opinion formers. Rather than consult just once a year, the Council has established a dialogue with opinion formers via a regular bulletin. Our experience is citizens, and many of our partner organisations, feel they lack the knowledge to engage in informed debate. Providing information is therefore a key part of the Council's participation activity. We also make every effort to communicate issues clearly and without resorting to jargon.

    —  Website—the Council has developed its website ( as a means of providing information. We are increasingly encouraging online responses to consultation, for example on the Council's Local Transport Plan and Medium Term Service Priorities. So far only a minority of people are participating in debates, but in an area where almost 40 per cent of households have access to the Internet at home, work or college we anticipate a high level of demand. And while the numbers participating are similar to those attending traditional public meetings on the Council's budget—they participate at a fraction of the cost.

    —  Placing greater emphasis on supporting and working with advocacy groups—for example, Speaking Out works with people with learning disabilities to make their views known to Health and Social Services. Cambridge Ethnic Community Forum has recently agreed to work with the Council, Cambridge City Council and the Police to ensure its members have a voice in the provision of a range of services.

  2.  Last year the Council carried out over 30 other surveys and participation exercises to gather information about particular services. Our success in the Charter Mark awards scheme, eight awards since the scheme began, demonstrates our wide experience and long-standing commitment.


  3.  Benefits

    —  Greater satisfaction with the Council as people become better informed. Regular feedback gives consultees confidence that the Council is listening and working to meet their priorities. The Citizens' Panel shows a 10 point increase in satisfaction with Council services over the last year. This in part will be due to panel members feeling better informed.

    —  More responsive services, for example, improvements to the Cambridge Park and Ride service on siting of bus stops, changes to library opening hours and improved access to Council services by telephone and via the Internet.

    —  Improved staff skills. As a result of consultation activity staff throughout the organisation are becoming more outward looking. They are more aware of service users perspectives and of partnership opportunities with other agencies.

  4.  Costs

    —  Money—for example the Citizens' Panel costs £30,000 per annum and the production of opinion formers leaflets approximately £10,000 per annum.

    —  Time—Consultation takes time, whether it is commissioning a survey or working with "hard to reach" groups.

    —  Training/development—The Council has had to invest in staff skills. We offer specialist training on quantitative survey techniques or qualitative research facilitation. Other staff need management support to give them the confidence to try new methods of participation.

  5.  We believe there are four key elements to successful participation:

    —  Consultation must be meaningful, and be seen to be meaningful if it is to be credible. There is danger that these new developments will fall into disrepute if local accountability is further eroded, whether by capping or insensitive use of central audit and inspection powers.

    —  Participation must be an integral part of project planning, not just as an add on.

    —  Participation must involve a range of techniques and be commensurate with the size of the decision. Spending £30-40,000 on budget consultation is justified as the Council's total budget is £350 million. For smaller projects less expensive techniques are used.

    —  Providing feedback—an essential part of our strategy is ensuring all those who were consulted receive feedback. Citizens' Panel members receive written feedback after each questionnaire and results are communicated to a wider audience via press releases and our website.


  6.  These techniques have been useful to Councillors. Participation provides additional information to help them make decisions and is not a substitute for decision making. Initially some Councillors were suspicious but it is now seen as a real aid.


  7.  Citizens' panellists want more information from the Council, especially about how to access services. We would not want to overemphasise this, but greater consultation and greater awareness of Council services does seem to encourage greater participation.


  8.  The Council has not developed any new methods of participation, but has successfully brought together a range of techniques in a co-ordinated way and is using them to have a real impact on decision making.

J Bowrey

Head of Policy and Review

9 December 1999

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