Policy Scotland was delighted to welcome around 25 people to the first event in our new lunchtime seminar series.
Dr Claire Bynner, research team leader at Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland, led the seminar, speaking on Closing the participation gap: developing the mindsets and skills for participatory governance in Scotland.
Dr Bynner started by reviewing the move from representative democracy to participative democracy and now to the focus on deliberative democracy. Whilst in most post-industrial societies voting is in decline non-electoral forms of political participation are increasing. She referred to some examples of deliberative innovations such as poverty and truth commissions and citizens’ assemblies, the most well-known of which is probably the citizens’ assembly in the Republic of Ireland which preceded the national referendum on abortion. Another example is the Brexit citizens’ assembly.
In Scotland there has been a massive growth in participatory budgeting processes and the transition from first generation – which focused on grant-giving – to the second generation which focuses on influencing mainstream local authority budgets.
Another feature of these innovations is a strong online aspect with processes such as Decide Madrid. There are many case studies on Participedia, including some from What Works Scotland.
Russell Dalton, in his book The Participation Gap (2017) argues that social status (education, occupation and income) provides the skills and resources that enable people to participate. New forms of action may expand the potential for citizens to influence public policy, but because these activities make greater cognitive and resource demands on participants, they may increase the participation gap (Dalton, 2017: 4). From the international research, it is still not clear how different institutional contexts and forms of participation widen or narrow the participation gap.
Participatory governance is “governance though partnership between the public and third sectors as well as meaningful and consequential participation by citizens and community groups.” Since the Christie Commission report (2011), this form of governance has become key to public service reform in Scotland, although we continue to face significant challenges in strengthening and deepening local democracy. Scotland has the largest average population per local authority in Europe, at around 163,000 people per local authority area. It also has the highest ratio of elected members to constituents with an average of 1 to 2,860 in the UK and 1 to 4,270 in Scotland. This compares to 1 to 500 in Finland. The 2014 Cosla Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy highlighted this gap between governance structures and local communities.
We now have the Community Empowerment Act 2015 which places new duties on community planning partnership (CPPs). The two surveys of community planning officials run by What Works Scotland revealed that officials regard community engagement as very important in their work and between 2016-2019 there is a trend towards more inclusive activities such as participatory budgeting and citizens juries. But there are also challenges: there is consultation fatigue, ambivalence towards participation processes, disconnect from decision-makers and doubts over whether participation will have any impact.
So encouraging and managing participation, and building genuinely participatory processes, requires the mindsets and professional skills of facilitation. There’s also the need for low level, time consuming, but ultimately rewarding, relationship-building work in communities.
Dr Bynner concluded that participatory governance is in its infancy and there remains disagreement about what community empowerment means in practice as well as a wider context of uncertainty. The findings from What Works Scotland demonstrate that in order to narrow the participation gap, scale matters: participation is needed at a geographical level that meaningful and practical for community engagement. There is a need for a greater focus by decision makers on incentives for participation and support, including compensating people for their time. Institutional mindsets and skills need to change: elected members have a role in strengthening and encouraging participatory and deliberative processes and making sure that these processes lead to impact. Finally there is a need for greater recognition of the professional skills and role of facilitation within meetings and other participatory spaces. Without corrective measures such as these, there is a risk that the participation gap will continue to grow.
Questions and answers
Dr Bynner’s talk was followed by a Q&A session with a wide variety of points brought up by the attendees, including:
- Understanding the incentives for people getting involved in participatory and deliberative processes.
- Need for decision-makers to work on creating the space for participation.
- The relationship of the electoral representation with grassroots activity.
- How to ensure meaningful participation within and with the third sector
- when is participation valued by people.
- getting rid of bad participation practices to allow robust mechanisms on big issues to get space and attention.
- Starting with small decisions but ones with real impact.
- considering participatory governance as a process that support a sense of inclusion and wellbeing.
- Skills in facilitation using techniques and methods from theatre.
- Embedding genuine participation in the schools and education experience education and schools.
- The role of community councils.
- The impact digital technology is having on participatory processes.
Useful resources from What Works Scotland
- Community engagement resources
- Participatory budgeting resources
- Facilitation training – new skills to facilitate collaboration
Next lunchtime seminar
The next seminar in the series is by Professor Kathryn Riley, Professor of Urban Education in the Institute of Education at University College London, who will speak on Leadership of Place.
- Tuesday 5 March 2019, 12.30pm to 2pm
- The Boardroom (Room 139), 29 Bute Gardens, University of Glasgow
Tea, coffee and cake will be provided. Please feel free to bring your lunch!