I first became aware of the National Assembly for Wales’ work to involve the public in scrutiny back at the Scrutiny conference that was held in 2013. Having worked in the field of public participation for a few years before joining the Wales Audit Office, their approaches caught my attention. I was impressed by the practical nature of their public engagement toolkit, and as I heard more about their work, the more I was eager to learn.
From hearing about their use of Google Hangouts in a scrutiny Twitter chat, to discussing online democracy at GovCamp Cymru, it was clear that they were doing a lot of interesting work. It was great to get an invitation to visit them and hear more about what they’re doing.
What really impressed me was the focus on how best to involve people. Rather than begin with the method they want to use, they start by looking at how people might want to take part. Their Health and Social Care Committee recently did an inquiry into how the Welsh Government had implemented their cancer delivery plan, where they worked with MacMillan before deciding on holding outreach sessions across Wales, with a representative from each session attending a Wales-wide meeting.
The focus on how people might want to be involved doesn’t even end there, as they feedback to participants in a range of ways, depending on how people have taken part. Having been on the receiving end of many consultations where I never heard a thing, it was quite refreshing to see the effort that the Assembly focus on this aspect. I was particularly struck by their use of video to feedback, with the below example from their Inquiry into recycling a particularly good example.
In terms of culture, it’s a case of leading from the top. The decision to involve people has been made by Assembly Members, which has set the expectation for involving the wider public in the scrutiny process. This expectation means that involving the public and interest groups is planned into the process right at the beginning.
Members are also actively part of the involvement process, with an Assembly Member being part of focus groups and events that they run. Assembly staff take notes, and the Assembly Member then feeds them back to the rest of the committee at a feedback meeting. Deciding on the method to engage depends on who members want to hear from, what methods those people are most comfortable in using, the resource available to deliver it and Assembly Members’ availability. The approach will differ from inquiry to inquiry as each of these will be different.
As public services are being stretched in this financial climate, scrutiny can add real value by highlighting different approaches to issues that the people of Wales face. And by involving the public in this process, we can also better ensure that public services are more efficient and better meet people’s needs.