Nigel Slack asks questions. Lots of questions. Sometimes he even repeats himself, and if he doesn’t get an answer, good luck to you. For the past two years, ‘active citizen’ Nigel Slack has been on a mission to find out how decisions are made at Sheffield City Council – who has the power, what they do with it, and how we, as citizens, can influence their decisions. He wants “to know how the decision makers are operating”. What’s more, he wants everyone else to know too. So he blogs, tweets and talks about it, everything he can do to “democratise decision making in the city”.

Ask Nigel about anything that might cross a councillor’s desk – from planning to devolution, social care to council contracts – and he’ll give you a rundown of the major issues and the key players. Not surprising really, given that he’s probably already tracked them down, questions in hand. But then he is a very active citizen. When I spoke to him, he’d already had discussions with two cabinet members that week, sat in on a cabinet meeting, and was heading off to the Sheffield Executive Board. Oh, and then blog and tweet everything he’d learnt.

How does a middle-aged ex-contract manager from Sheffield develop such an interest? “When Maggie Thatcher privatised the buses, the idea was that they took the risks and they reaped the rewards. But one day I noticed the Council were congratulating First for getting government money to invest in some new buses and I thought, hang on a minute.” Since that first question Slack says he’s never really stopped, becoming “more or less a permanent feature at Council offices”.

Initial victories included shedding light on the Council’s contracts – multi-year, multi-million pound agreements between the city and local and international companies to do everything from mend the roads to look after our elderly. Thanks to him, details of the arrangements which account for approximately 70% of total council spend can now be found on the Council’s website. If you want to know exactly who does what, how much they get and who to talk to about it, this is the place to start.

Slack’s questions have also prompted a review of the Council’s use of zero-hour contracts, revealed that some major Council contracts were with companies that avoided UK tax and had poor human rights records abroad, and, most recently, discovered that the Council, through the City Region, are secretly negotiating a devolution deal with central government.

But more than any particular outcome, Slack says a major victory has been to change the culture around questions from members of the public. He believes there’s been a move from an initial perception that public questions were an annoyance to a recognition that such interjections can be valuable. Now very much on the inside, Slack continues to use his independent and persistent style in conversations with councillors and officials, offering an alternative point of view. “They now recognise that what I’m trying to do is a positive thing: to improve transparency, to improve services and to improve public engagement.”

Nigel’s current push is for webcasting of Council meetings. He wants live streaming of the decisions that affect us all. Pointing to the thousands of viewers in Bristol, he says such a move would be “a major means of democratising decision making in the city”. So it’s not all questions, then. Some smart ideas too.

Like everything, Nigel’s active citizen work costs money. He recently went pro, launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise the cash. The money ensures his independence – he’d publish his accounts online – but also compensates his time. “I have sat through a full council meeting, all six hours of it. And, let me tell you, it is grim going.” It’s not sexy work, but it is important. Nigel says he asks the questions that ordinary people can’t and that councillors won’t. To read Nigel’s blog posts on, for example, the forthcoming devolution of powers to Sheffield is to learn more in ten minutes than a whole week of council press releases. The specifics he is able to communicate are far greater than our broadcast or print media are prepared to go into. He knows his stuff and he knows his city.

If every reader of Now Then gave £2, Nigel could do a whole lot more good work. If everyone could be as active as Citizen Slack, Sheffield would be an even better place to live.

Nigel’s crowdfunding campaign
Nigel’s blog
List of current Council contracts

Laurence Peacock