Issue 12

CAN SCOTLAND HAVE A DEMOCRATIC REVIVAL?

By Jen Wallace, Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust

Amongst Scotland’s growing policy community there is a buzz around a revival in democracy. The turn out at last years referendum (85%) and the number of spontaneous (and not so spontaneous) community events and conversations put the allegations of an apathetic citizenry to rest.

In 2015, the number of voters remained high (though not as high) for the UK general election at 71%, notably higher than the OECD average of 68%.

The understandable demand to build on this base has led to a flourishing of initiatives. Otto Sharmer, senior lecturer at MIT and founding chair of the Presencing Institute was recently invited to Scotland to set up a Scottish U-Lab by the Scottish Government Local Government and Communities Directorate. The aim is to increase capacity for leadership and transformational change in Scotland’s communities. Meanwhile, ‘National Conversations’ on Fairer Scotland and on Health and Wellbeing have been launched. These differ from traditional models of consultation by aiming to reach a far wider audience and by using community-led discussions rather than the rather sterile box-ticking exercises. And of course both will be supported by extensive social media campaigns e.g. at @scotgovfairer.

The aim is to increase capacity for leadership and transformational change in Scotland’s communities.

The Carnegie UK Trust has recently been working in the Republic of Ireland to support bottom-up conversations with communities. The People’s Conversation aims to shape a new vision for citizenship in the run up to the 100th anniversary of Ireland's independence. Introducing the project, President Michael D Higgins noted:

"The People’s Conversation has developed into a dynamic dialogue, engaging the imagination and the energy of citizens from across Ireland; people have come together to envision a new version of citizenship, and to explore a new set of principles by which we might live ethically as a society."

Scotland can learn much from this experience. Firstly, it is essential to go where people are, to use the community groups and networks where people meet rather than try to impose a new (inevitably short-lived) structure on them. The People’s Conversations were held in community settings, hotels, local arts centres and prisons. Secondly, within the broad parameters of national conversations, it is important not to be too structured or top-down. The conversations worked best when they were loosely convened, allowing groups to focus on the issues of most interest to them. This is far less structured than the focus group approach used to gather views of the public during previous Scottish Government consultation exercises.

In harnessing people’s energy and enthusiasm, the Scottish Government has the opportunity to hear more directly from the public in shaping its overall direction. This is to be welcomed. The proportion of citizens in Scotland who report that they can influence decisions in their local area is woefully small at 22%, though this Scottish Household Survey data is out of date, dating back to 2013. New data is due to be published this month which will provide an insight into whether there is evidence of a widespread change in attitudes to influence and responsiveness.

Firstly, it is essential to go where people are, to use the community groups and networks where people meet rather than try to impose a new (inevitably short-lived) structure on them.

But there are risks in this newly energised and participatory Scotland. Participatory methods of engagement can lead to the perception of those with ‘sharp elbows and fat wallets’ having more say than others. In some cases this may be about awareness of opportunities to engage, but it may also be about practical barriers such as time and geography. Efforts to engage with a wide range of Scotland will be required, including those who are living in poverty but not necessarily in areas of multiple deprivation and those whose lives are too busy to easily slot in attendance at events and meetings. Models such as Citizens Juries, advocated by Oliver Escobar at the University of Edinburgh can assist in developing structures that allow for debate without running the risk that some voices are heard louder than others.

Our brave new Scotland is an exciting place to be but it requires far more detailed debate and consideration of how participatory democracy relates to representative democracy, both at Scottish and at local government level. The International Association of Public Participation urges decision-makers only to engage with the public if they can honestly promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision. Otherwise well meaning engagement can backfire and result in feelings of disenfranchisement, the polar opposite of the outcome sought. This is as true for National Conversations as it ever was for old fashioned consultations.

Jen Wallace is Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust

By Jen Wallace, Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust

Issue 12

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