Tuesday 8 June 2021

The Ladder of Citizen Participation in Barnet - More Snakes Than Ladders.

 Tomorrow there is a Community Leadership & Libraries Committee meeting where one of the agenda items is all about resident participation. The main thrust of this is about getting Barnet residents to do more for themselves but they also talk about greater engagement and participation and include a section about informing and consulting with residents.

There is quite an academic tone to the paper referencing the ‘Ladder of Citizen Participation’ "first modelled by Sherry Arnstein in a US planning journal in 1969" as the report says.

From my perspective we are definitely stuck on the lower rungs of tokenism and that is where we will remain unless there is a change of administration or we encounter more snakes and slip further back down the ladder as the urge to suppress discussion gets worse.

Over the last ten years we have seen many backward steps in resident participation.
  • No longer allowed to address (speak at) a committee. Originally you could ask to address the committee for up to 5 minutes and committee members had the opportunity to ask questions of the speaker to get more insight into the issue. This was then reduced to three minutes, then the right to speak was removed entirely.
  • Not allowed to ask more than one question on an agenda item, no more than 100 words, and if more than two people want to ask a question about the same agenda item only the first two questions are taken and all others are rejected. 
The excuse given was that people were asking too many questions even though the time for questions and speeches was limited to no more than 30 minutes. Some agenda items especially those dealing with budget and finance may be accompanied by up to 12 additional reports running to several hundred pages. Irrespective of the length of report or topics covered, one agenda item, one question is the limit.
  • Restrictions on asking questions at residents forums. Pre 2010 residents forums used to be held up to 10 times a year, you could submit questions on the evening and there was a dialogue about the items. Now forums are just 4 times per year, you have to submit your question a week in advance and you can only speak for three minutes which is rigorously enforced. One councillor, John Marshall, disrespectfully labelled people who wanted to speak for four, five, six or seven minutes as "village bores". 
The report identifies the need to "reinvigorate" residents forums but what I find so galling is that exactly the same message was given 10 years ago in a detailed paper which you can read here. Set out below is an extract from that research paper:

The research asked what would encourage residents to get involved, the most common themes were:

  • Topics needed to be of specific interest and relating to their local area;
  • The Council should demonstrate they are taking action and feeding back what was happening as a result;
  • Engagement should be better publicised through a variety of methods.
As a result, their principal requirements for an attractive engagement model was that visible action resulted on the night from those with authority, which was then fed back. The system should also be more widely publicised, and there were a number of suggestions on how this be done including greater use of electronic communications. There were also suggestions that the council should make greater use of Barnet online and the web to understand the issues that were causing residents most concern within different areas.
In terms of format some participants said they did not like the top table format and would prefer the meetings to be more informal, with table discussions, mixing residents, councillors and officers on each table.
There were some requests for all local issues, including other public services, to be covered, and for meetings to allocate a small budget, but this was by no means universal.

The research paper also identified barriers to people attending residents forums which included:
  • Lack of action as a result of what is raised or discussed was the main deterrent to getting involved in the future
  • Lack of feedback and explanation of the process was also seen as a key deterrent
  • Lack of time was also a barrier to getting involved
  • Inconvenient time/day - some participants felt if the engagement foras were held at inconvenient times this was a particular barrier to some residents. Reference was made in particular to mothers with children who would find it difficult to attend in the evening due to childcare
  • Inconvenient location – if the event was in held at an inconvenient location and not in participant’s local area
  • Confidentiality - was also mentioned as a barrier to raising issues in face to face foras. Particular reference was made to raising anti social behaviour issues about neighbours.
At the time, I thought the officer responsible had done a good job in identifying the problems and therefore their recommendations would be accepted. But no. This is Barnet and of course they ignored the findings and made it even more difficult to ask questions by banning a range of issues that could be raised. No surprise when people stopped going. 

Now they say they have a problem with engagement and want to 'reinvigorate' the forums. Ten years, no lessons learned, no one looking back to research carried out previously, same councillors doing their utmost to supress, ignore and discourage resident engagement. No wonder people are disengaged.