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What is public participation?
Public participation is all about a council and communities working together with each other and partners such as the voluntary sector, charities and businesses to provide and improve services to local people.
Public participation is an approach which recognises and values the active contribution of local people in identifying, shaping and evaluating the services they and their families rely upon. This is different to consultation which usually refers to a request for feedback about a proposed change.
Why is it important?
Not all people are the same, they come from different backgrounds and cultures, have different skillsets, different needs and ambitions. Some communicate through different languages, face different challenges both physical and non physical while others have a range of responsibilities for others. The challenge is to ensure that differences between people are welcomed and taken into account when developing local services and the laws that govern individuals’ daily lives.
Who is responsible for ensuring the council has arrangements in place for real participation rather than lip service?
The law requires that each county council publish a strategy, or plan, setting out how it intends to encourage local people to participate. When preparing its strategy the council must consult local people and other interested parties to ensure their ideas and views are used in the development of the plan.
The council must also review its public participation strategy as soon as possible after a local government election and may review the strategy at any other time it thinks appropriate.
The strategy, when published, should set out how it has been developed and who has been involved; including where it replaces an older strategy. It should set out the fundamental principles that the council will use to frame its approach to public participation, including how it will enable people from all backgrounds and of all ages to participate in decision making.
What should a public participation strategy include?
The strategy must include:
- ways of promoting awareness among local people of the council's functions
- how the council will raise awareness among local people about how to become a member of the council and what councillors do
- how the council will provide local people with access to information about decisions made, or to be made, by the council
- how the council will promote and support ways for local people to make representations to the council about a decision before, and after, it is made
- arrangements for bringing the views of the public to the attention of overview and scrutiny committees
- how the council will promote awareness among members of the benefits of using social media to communicate with local people
Public engagement principles
Councils should have regard to the “public engagement principles” produced by Participation Cymru in how they take action on public participation:
- Engagement is effectively designed to make a difference.
- Encourage and enable everyone affected to be involved, if they so choose.
- Engagement is planned and delivered in a timely and appropriate way.
- Work with relevant partner organisations.
- The information provided will be jargon free, appropriate and understandable.
- Make it easier for people to take part.
- Enable people to take part effectively.
- Engagement is given the right resources and support to be effective.
- People are informed about the impact of their contribution.
- Learn and share lessons to improve the process of engagement.
Councils should also consider the Journey to Involvement produced by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales when considering their approach to public participation.
Every principal council across Wales must set out how it will use petitions to support local decision making.
What is a petition?
A petition is a well-established way for people with a shared concern or cause to raise their views with an organisation. They are often used to suggest new ways of doing things but are also used to register individuals’ disappointment in specific issues.
Traditionally petitions were paper documents which set out a specific point of view and people were invited to support that view by adding their signatures to the document. The document, complete with signatures would then be submitted for consideration.
Given the advances in technology councils are now required to set out how they will support electronic petitions. The arrangements must set out:
- how a petition can be submitted to the council
- how and by when the council will acknowledge receipt of a petition
- the steps the council may take in response to a petition it receives
- the circumstances (if any) in which the council may take no further action in response to a petition
- how and by when the council will make available its response to a petition to the person who submitted the petition and to the public
A principal council must review its petition scheme from time to time and, if the council considers it appropriate, revise the scheme.
While encouraging the use of electronic petitions councils will also need to make arrangements for people who are not able to create or participate electronically.
Public access to information
Attending Full Council Meetings and Council Committee
There are rules about how the public may have access to meetings of full councils and its sub committees. The public have a right to attend full council meetings of a principal council and meetings of its committees but can be excluded from a meeting where confidential matters are discussed. This will include where the discussion includes sensitive personal information. While members of the public may attend these meetings, there is no automatic right for the public to speak.
Papers for meetings
Councils are required to publish a range of documents relating to their meetings on the council’s website. This includes the agenda, supporting papers and notice of the meeting. This will include details of when and where the meeting will be held. Some of the papers for the meeting may not be published in cases where the information is considered confidential. Following the meeting a note of the decisions will be published followed by a full set of minutes.
Freedom of Information Act
Councils are bound by the Freedom of Information Act 2000, by the Environmental Information Regulations, and by the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Anyone can make a request to a council for information they hold. The Act covers all recorded information and not just information relating to meetings. Information about how councils deal with requests for information is set out on each council’s website together with details of how to make a request.