“The issue of whether we have the Wales we want, has to be answered through a two-way dialogue with the public,” says Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales; “the way we involve people must move beyond traditional methods of consultation. Opening a conversation with people is vital to transforming public services.”
The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act places a duty on public bodies to carry out sustainable development through the five ways of working. This includes planning for the long term future, preventing problems before they arise or get worse, integration of services and across the seven national well-being goals, collaborating with the right partners and, crucially, involving people in their decision making.
In fulfilling these duties, getting involvement right from the outset is crucial to the Act’s implementation. The Wales ‘we’ want must go beyond civil servants and local government – it has to involve and engage with communities and individuals to ask them: what is the Wales that you want; what do you want for your family and community now and into the future. Starting from the perspective of people who live in Wales and use public services can often give a much simpler solution to intractable problems we wrestle with as officers.
George Bernard Shaw said that the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place. Could this be a description of our current culture of consultation in the public sector? We are often instructed to ‘consult’ with the community and stakeholders, but this is often far from real, ongoing involvement.
It is often said that public bodies don’t have the resource to follow the National Principles of Public Engagement and involve people in a meaningful way. But this doesn’t have to be about intensive face-to-face engagement (although this is very effective), there are numerous ways that we communicate now in our home lives that involve cost effective digital means. How can we make this more possible in our professional worlds too?
Unsurprisingly, the people of Wales have noticed. IPSOS Mori revealed that only 13% of the public felt that they had a stake in the services they received. In working with Good Practice Exchange to pilot the software tool, ‘SeneseMaker’, to involve people in setting the Commissioner’s priorities, many people told their story of feeling disempowered, disengaged and by now, disinterested, by what’s going on. People felt that they had been consulted too late, provided with information that was in technical language, asked the wrong questions and many did not know what impact their input had.
Perhaps this highlights that the average person is not interested in service boundaries and funding provision, or appreciates being labelled as a ‘service user client’ or part of a ‘protected group’. The language we insist on using to talk about the public we serve, and the public sector insistence on constructing a process, has had the effect of dehumanising public services. Perhaps we have become experts at asking the right questions, to tick the right boxes, but often we have become adept at missing the point.
A recent example is where several people commented on a consultation by a council on the closure of schools. In line with equality legislation, they asked parents detailed demographic information. However, the consultation questionnaire failed to ask if any of the parents were unable to drive, despite the school only being accessible by car.
This example serves a lesson that, in involving people, we’re actually talking about “people!” People who are mums, dads, sons, daughters, neighbours and friends.
Sophie Howe believes: “I think we could go a long way in breaking through bureaucratic barriers that can sometimes exist between people and services. Surely by walking a mile in their shoes, we can all make public services a little more human?”
The Good Practice Exchange are holding an event on ‘How different methods of engagement can help involve the citizen in public service delivery’ on 6 September in Cardiff, and 28 September in Llanrwst, Conwy.
These seminars begin to explore how good we are at getting the true picture from our communities, on understanding the lives that people lead, what methods can we use to understand the challenges people have, what motivates them and what would help them to lead happier, more fullfilled lives.