With Rina Singh, Deputy Chief Executive, South Somerset District Council.
What community engagement mechanisms have been used in your area?
"We use a variety of engagement mechanisms depending on the issue in hand. For example, we have an annual ‘you decide' meeting. Here, 100 members of the public come and have their say on alternative ways that the council could allocate its spending.
"This is a way of finding out what people do want the council to spend money on and what they do not. It is exploring the difficult decisions we constantly have to make.
"In some localities, though, we have gone further and held forums where people vote on projects that the community has put forward. Both sets of initiatives have been very successful. People have really enjoyed them and sometimes on an evening 400 people can attend.
"We also use ‘planning for real' and local action groups (LAGs)".
How do the area forums work?
"Area forums are a mechanism to involve ‘natural' communities in decision making about a variety of issues. Currently, they are being used for prioritising projects, funding of projects, planning for real and buying in enhancements to service delivery, should the community desire them.
"The council already has a very successful committee structure. This aims to be accessible to and engage with the public.
"We've built on this by using area forums to involve the public in making decisions about budgets. We've allocated £40,000 to each of the four areas.
"The area forums can then engage with the public to get a consensus on what the money needs to be spent on."
How does the general public participate?
"We invite residents and stakeholders in an area to come to an evening and participate in the decision making. The format is slightly different in each area because of the nature of the people and how it's been set up. What works for one community, doesn't necessarily work best for another."
Can you give some examples?
"In area east, for example, we had a huge number of residents and partners invited to an evening forum to discuss service enhancements. This includes the frequency, scope or level of service. They had an informal gathering, initially.
"We also invite our heads of service, members and the portfolio-holders so people can speak to them directly about service provision.
"The forum agrees service issues and improvement priorities. The service providers are then asked to work up some costed proposals for service enhancement.
"Before the decision is made, the forum gets the opportunity to talk to service providers in more detail about the costed proposals. This may throw up some further refinements.
"Final proposals are presented to the area committee that uses its allocation to fund area-specific enhancements.
"Another example is where residents focus on projects and use a voting system to inform decisions about allocation of funding.
"Community groups have a number of projects that the community wish to see funded but there is limited funding. So we use a democratic process to allocate the funding - residents decide. The money is not allocated by just sitting in an office and looking at forms.
"We invite them to a forum. Here, participants present their project to the forum, after which they vote individually for the project they want to spend the money on. This is very successful.
"In a couple of other areas, we do it slightly differently again but the principle is the same. It is all open invitation, people turn up and then all of it is distilled and presented to the area committee to be approved."
What about the annual ‘you decide' meeting on overall budget priorities?
"We hold an annual ‘State of the District' event, which is the council leader's event. The format is different every year. He reports on progress, achievements and so on.
"Last year in 2007, we decided to use the event to inform the budget process as well. Town and parish councils were invited, as well as many local businesses and all the members of the local strategic partnership (LSP). That included, among others, the police, health and fire organisations and the voluntary sector.
"In a council press release, Councillor Paull Robathan, South Somerset's Portfolio-holder for Finance, Revenues and Support Services, says:
"'This is an opportunity for any one of our residents to get directly involved in telling us what is important to them. We will all sit down together and find out what people want the council to spend money on and what they do not. We shall explore the difficult decisions we constantly have to make.'
"The press release also describes the meeting as asking the community a range of thought-provoking questions like: ‘If you had £50, would you rather spend it on street cleaning, or would you spend it on supporting a village hall or play area?'"
Were any other forms of engagement used?
"Last year we also did a ‘doorstep survey'. This was to get feedback that was based on significant sample sizes and was statistically valid.
"People were asked what they would like to spend their money on. A list of attributes is used and there are things like: ‘do you want more dog wardens' or ‘do you want more street cleaning?'
"People then have a set number of points that have to be allocated. The method is called a simultaneous modelling trade-off technique."
What has been the reaction of members?
"The members are all behind this. They're quite excited. This is another opportunity to actually engage with their electorate. It's actually led by members."
What benefits have come from these initiatives?
"It is human nature for people to want everything. But when people feel involved they are more likely to understand that there isn't a bottomless well.
"It helps people understand the reasons why a particular thing is being done and why something else isn't. Without that understanding, people are less tolerant."
With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything that you would do differently?
"We are always trying to refine the grid. By the grid I mean the attributes that we put forward for people to consider. It is important to put some time and effort into it.
"When we select the attributes we want to be sure that they are the attributes that are close to people's hearts. Attributes are identified as a result of other consultation that we've done or other information that has come to light."
Getting closer to communities Beacon theme - on the Beacon Scheme website
Corporate Director (Communities) and Deputy Chief Executive
telephone: 01935 462 010
Article published May 2008