I recently attended a training event for local authority Scrutiny Officers and left somewhat disheartened by something I had heard said which was met with general agreement in the room. In a discussion about innovation in Scrutiny the topic of social media and driving engagement through it came up and, as a newcomer to local authority Scrutiny, I was eager to pick up tips and examples of best practice however an Officer in the room said that they felt it was relatively pointless after an experiment at their authority had gathered only a handful of public participants and that if the public care enough about a topic they will make it to the town hall.
It was the general agreement that worried me more, it demonstrated to me that what I believed to be wrong was a view that was widely shared amongst my peers. To me it seemed an abdication of duty from Scrutiny officers who should help people access Scrutiny and local government decision making and yet the onus, it seemed, is being put on members of the public to get to the town hall for a meeting. This is not an easy thing to do for many - people are tired from long days at work, they need to look after their children, they may not want to venture out on a dark winters night and all these things stand even if the topic of a meeting is important to them and of course this assumes that the Council has communicated the meeting to the public. Surely the onus is on Scrutiny and its practitioners to make people aware of what Scrutiny is and to assist them in being able to have their say by providing as many access points as they can.
The general disdain for social media was also a shock as I see it as a huge part of providing these access points, it is in everyones front rooms, bedrooms, pockets and hands. Scrutiny is a newcomer to it, ideas will come and go and people should not be afraid of poor responses and failure at first, it is all part of finding out what works. Also a handful of responses on social media is often higher than public turnout at town hall meetings and should absolutely not be sniffed out. Allowing people to communicate with their elected representatives and local decision making from the comfort of their own sofa, in their own time and on their own terms should be a clear goal of Scrutiny Officers nationwide. The public care about local politics and often when something they really care about is being discussed at the town hall they either can't make it or don't know it's on. Whose fault is that? For me, it certainly is not theirs.