Sam Davies

Encouraging public involvement with council work

This week I am preparing for two council Scrutiny Committees. That means I’m spending my time reading rather than writing; there’s plenty to digest, with key decisions coming up.

Any member of the public can ask a question at committees, all of which are now meeting again in person. For example, all of the papers for the committees on which I sit are available online (below) and include details of how to ask questions.

Could this system be improved? As someone who believes passionately in the widest possible involvement in local democracy, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the accessibility of these processes.

Sam Davies


  • In my experience – and this is back-up when I look through the answers to the questions listed in the Planning & Transport Scrutiny Committee minutes – it’s not asking questions which is hard, it’s getting a MEANINGFUL ANSWER to which someone will then be held accountable. The approach to answering questions seems always to be defensive. One technique is to take the narrowest possible interpretation of a public question and then say that it’s irrelevant or direct you to complex legislation. Or give a very convoluted response which doesn’t actually properly address the question (a certain Mr P Blake has perfected this art… ). If responders actually took the time to think about what the question is really getting at and approach answering it as an opportunity to educate and inform rather than to defend and reject, dialogue and democracy might actually get somewhere.

  • Sam

    One challenge for members of the public is being able to read and sensibly respond to the vast number of pages in for example the planning scrutiny papers. I am not sure how anyone has the time to read all the papers – including Councillors.

    As an example, looking at the sustainability appraisal with 4 sections of 400 pages each, one way forward would be to simplify documents and use plain English. The sustainability documents could be reduced to what is recommended and leave those with time to read the full text.

    War and Peace has 1200 pages?

  • Being a young adult working studying and volunteering have very little time to go out let alone keep track of Council Committees and what they do. Do realise I need to know more, but how could dates, committees and accessible agendas be embedded in some sort of circular with easy links to pose a question. Otherwise lives are too busy and Committees that could impact on my immediate environment let alone the wider Cambridge I live in seem too remote and distanced from my day to day life. Immy