Sheffield Council is failing to engage public in decision making, experts warn

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Sheffield Council does not understand why public participation is important and its poor practices include “tokenistic consultations”, experts warned.

It comes more than a year after voters emphatically chose to change the way the council is run from a cabinet model to a modern committee system in order to give all councillors and members of the public more say in decision making.

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However, Involve, a public participation charity, undertook a review of the council’s engagement with the public and found it was still falling short of expectations.

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Sheffield Council Town Hall chamber.Sheffield Council Town Hall chamber.
Sheffield Council Town Hall chamber.

The review was summarised in a council report prepared for a recent meeting of the governance committee.

In the report officers said the authority failed to have a clear sense of if and why public engagement is valuable and it lacked an understanding of what its role was in supporting participation in the city.

There were also different standards across areas of the council, with some excellent examples and some poor, according to the review.

Poor examples included “tokenistic consultations”, a lack of action on what people feed back, failure to engage diverse communities and a feeling that the council is paternalistic rather than empowering.

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Officers said: “The intensive work to implement the new committee system in Sheffield, alongside existing demand on resources, has taken priority which has meant that we haven’t had capacity to progress the project on participation and involvement as quickly as we would have hoped. But, in response to the views from citizens and stakeholders, the review undertaken by Involve has independently identified the issues we need to tackle and suggested how we best do this.”

Going forward, officers said the authority would develop a vision to create a more participative culture in the city, working with the voluntary and community sector and communities.

However, they said there is a “risk that in setting an ambitious vision for participation, we rightly raise expectations amongst citizens that the council is not ready for equipped to meet”.

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Therefore, the council is undertaking a short internal project to ensure its rooted in its development as an organisation and there is a common and consistent knowledge of why participation is important.

This new vision is expected to be developed and in place for the start of the next council year in 2023/24.