How can councils acheive £1bn in cuts? What if they stopped asking the public?

In light of George Osborne’s budget announcements a fortnight ago, this week the Local Government Association meets to discuss how it will make £1bn in savings. As part of this exercise, the Association invited 2,000 members of public to share their thoughts on which areas they felt the cuts should affect.

The exercise threw up some surprising and some not so surprising results (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/10504916.stm). Obviously, some of these are diametrically opposed to already-announced spending plans (the ring-fencing of foreign aid, for example). Many would feel that this makes it considerably trickier for councils to get on with tackling the difficult decisions they need to realise £1bn in savings.

We hear our fair share of this kind of skepticism from public sector staff about particular consultation processes – ‘local elections are where the people say how they want the budget set’, ‘the public aren’t expert enough to contribute meaningfully’, ‘asking for people’s suggestions is just a way to incur more expense’ etc etc – and some of it is justified – particularly where consultation processes are divorced from actual decision-making processes.

However, this skepticism cannot be allowed to stymie public engagement and consultation on budget cuts altogether. Because what is surely vital across the board is that people feel connected to the decisions being made, and that they were given an opportunity to participate. What is not going to fly is councils making unilateral decisions – see, for example, the story in my earlier post from Panorama about Wirral Council, who had to ultimately reverse a decision to close libraries because they hadn’t consulted their residents at the outset.

Further to this general principle of connectedness, we’re approaching the point where if there’s no facility to get involved specifically online, you’re denying people a massive opportunity to participate.

Frankly, this is what Budget Simulator was built for. It’s designed to support the work of deliberative engagement with citizens, giving them a really easy opportunity to both learn about budget issues and express their priorities. There are other ways to engage your community about budget-setting, of course, and Budget Simulator is often used as part of a wider scheme but 10 councils and other authorities are already using it this year because getting a cheap, quick, proven way to connect people with budget decisions online is an easy win.

You might have reservations about the immediate task of connecting with the public on budget cuts but the benefits of doing it, and the risks of not doing it, are too great to ignore.

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