Over the coming weeks and months there is going to be a range of Council-led engagement and consultations, writes Swindon Council leader Cllr David Renard.
I hope that many people will participate and to assist you I would like to make clear what the differences between the two are.
To put it simply, consultation is a process in which the Council listens to views; engagement is a two-way discussion in which we share information and knowledge with residents while learning from their experiences and understanding, too.
Consultation is part of a formal decision-making process and it occurs when the Council has a specific plan that it is considering that will directly affect the users of a service. A recent example was when residents had the chance to comment on the Cabinet’s draft budget between December 2015 to January 2016. The report that we will take to Council on 25 February will show changes in response to the views of the public as part of that consultation.
We conduct consultations in a number of ways– through posted or online surveys, meetings with service users or by inviting comments to the Council or relevant Cabinet Member. No method is ever perfect and it is not a census. Unfortunately, we are not able to speak to every person in the borough but we welcome the feedback we get.
A consultation is just one piece of the evidence to which councillors must give due regard in making a decision. You will see the evidence of this in the Cabinet reports and often Members will refer to the consultation as part of the debate at Cabinet, Scrutiny, and Council. However, a consultation is not a referendum. Even on the most controversial topics, the majority of residents do not respond and councillors must exercise their best judgement about what is the best decision for the whole borough, not just those who have spoken for or against a proposal.
Alongside consultation, we also have engagement, which can do one of two things. Firstly, we use it to develop policies or strategies, such as the development of the new library strategy as approved by Cabinet on 10 February.
It is a way for us to work closely with residents, partners, community groups and other interested parties so that we can share knowledge and expertise. It gives residents the chance to help us form our strategies and policies before they even get to consultation.
With libraries this is especially important because of the wide ranging impact the library service has across the borough. We understand importance the service plays, and although our hands are tied with our financial position, we still want to make sure people have access to an effective library service in the future. This why we want to work with library users, local community groups, partners and other interested parties to fully understand how libraries could be used in the future and design a strategy that delivers for the borough in the years to come.
Secondly, we can use it to inform residents and service users about a policy that the Council has adopted so that there can be better understanding about what might change.