‘Government by the People’, the Final Report of the Commission on Fair Access to Political Influence, is now out.
It makes for a stimulating read -full of ideas about how to improve Scottish democracy.
Stephen Elstub and I have written a brief for the Reid Foundation about deliberative mini-publics and their potential use to involve citizens in policy and decision making.
Over the last year, the Electoral Reform Society has involved citizens, researchers and opinion-makers in a much-needed deliberative process to consider what a good Scottish democracy might look like.
PPN’s Citizen Participation Network has been a partner in this exciting journey, and we’re pleased to share the final report of the process. The report is packed with thought-provoking ideas and will inform the ERS’s forthcoming campaign to improve democracy in Scotland.
By Oliver Escobar, with photos from Emilio Pérez.
Published by Edinburgh Beltane (UK Beacons for Public Engagement).
Free PDF HERE.
The rhetoric of dialogue is sometimes adopted rather uncritically in academic, organizational, and policy circles. Too often that rhetoric is deployed with little understanding of the variety of principles and practices enacted in dialogic communication. How can dialogue be conceptualized and distinguished from other forms of communication? On what assumptions is it based? How is communication understood? What does it take to facilitate it? What kinds of processes make it possible? What ideas about democracy underpin it? What kind of changes in academic and policy-making cultures does it call for?
This booklet seeks to speak to people involved in creating public forums for meaningful conversations. In particular, I have taken as imaginary readers those practitioners and students that I have had the fortune to work with. If, with pragmatist and deliberative thinkers, we agree that communication is the very fabric of democratic life, then analysing and improving the quality of communication in the public sphere becomes critical. Understanding dialogic communication helps us to interrogate our public engagement work, the role our research institutions should play in society, and the ways in which we can develop collective capacity to deal with complex problems.
27 May, 2.30-4.30pm
Faculty Room North, David Hume Tower, George Square
University of Edinburgh
We will share our ‘Treasure Trove’ report that reflects on the process and the outputs, along with a short film of the day.
We’ll give some time to engage meaningfully with some of the ideas that came from our Thinking Folk, and look at how organisations and others can work with these ideas via the proposed Meshworks Network.
Finally, we will explore potential next steps both for So Say Scotland and the Thinking Together assembly process.
Imagining Scotland as a Hub of Democratic Innovation, Together We Make it a Reality!
Looking forward to sharing with you.
Team So Say
The Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill (CERB): A critical crossroads for Scotland’s participative democracy -by Oliver Escobar
A context for CERB: making local democracy more democratic
I focus here on the part of CERB that deals with community engagement –where I feel more comfortable providing commentary based on my research, experiences and preferences.
The CERB proposals are timely: there is momentum building up worldwide for reforming democracies to make them more democratic. There is a certain awakening around the notion of reclaiming politics and policy as a people’s business –rather than as an elitist or expert game. In Scotland, we seem keen to ask substantial questions that may help us to build the next form of democracy.
Public authorities have become permeable to the rhetoric of citizen participation and community engagement, and some have even institutionalised involvement practices that would seem unthinkable a few decades ago. A narrative of progress is therefore plausible. Every country goes through critical junctures in this type of process. In Scotland, we are currently facing one of them. What will Scottish participatory democracy look like in a decade? Some of the foundations are about to be laid.
Participatory vs. Consultative Democracy
Of course, it all comes down to what we have in mind when we talk about participatory democracy in Scotland. And that is the kind of debate that will make CERB more or less substantial and cutting-edge. In my view, there are two key positions in the debate, and I’d like to outline them in simplified terms for discussion sake.
Some people have a pretty thin understanding of how public participation in governance and policy-making should look like. Indeed, many are quite comfortable with a minimal concept of community engagement that simply builds on our current ‘consultative democracy’. This is a model in which public participation is limited to ‘consultation’, and the ‘duty to involve’ is not necessarily complemented with a ‘duty to do something’ with the results of involvement processes. Moreover, in this thin model of engagement, there is often a lack of care for the deliberative quality of participation processes, and a lack of transparency and accountability around how those processes are linked (or not) to policy and decision-making.
On the other hand, there are those like myself who long for a richer understanding of community engagement, capable of underpinning a more ambitiously participatory democracy. In this model, governance and policy-making is no longer the preserve of political and expert elites, but a realm where citizens are at the driving seat. Community engagement is, in this view, about sharing decision-making power, fostering meaningful public deliberation, and tapping into the creativity and knowledge of citizens in order to deal with the pressing issues of our time.
That is why in my response to the CERB consultation I have enthusiastically supported the role that democratic innovations like ‘mini-publics’ (citizen assemblies, planning cells, citizen juries, etc) or ‘participatory budgeting’ can play in deepening Scottish local democracy. To me, they exemplify the kind of innovative institutional design with the potential to develop a more participatory and deliberative democracy. And there are plenty of experiences from around the world to take inspiration from (see http://participedia.net).
Culture change in public authorities
It is hard to disagree with the key principles and recommendations of the Christie Commission regarding collaborative governance and public participation, and their rendition in the consultation of the CERB. They talk clearly about changing the culture of public authorities so that engagement, both at strategic and community level, becomes central to its ways of working. My concern is how this may play out in practice.
At the moment, there are a series of ongoing local battles around Community Planning and community engagement. These battles reflect the clash between new participatory politics and traditional technocratic and representative politics –in other words: between citizen-led governance and elite-led government. Participation practitioners (the focus of my current research) live in a world of constant negotiation and strategising, and their struggles often make visible the internal cultural barriers that the public sector will have to lift if substantial public participation is to take a central place in collaborative governance (Community Planning).
The unfulfilled promise of community councils
In this context, a reform of community councils seems a must. Most observers –including community councillors- recognise some of the problems that have hindered the democratic potential of community councils:
- they are hardly representative of their communities,
- they lack capacity and resources,
- some operate with a level of formality and lack of community engagement worthy of a disconnected elite,
- their electoral dynamics are problematic,
- they are sometimes dominated by party politics (for example, when they are used as launch pads for political careers, or as spaces for ‘payback’ after loosing local elections),
- and they hardly operate as spaces for public dialogue and deliberation.
Community councils have failed similarly in Scotland and the USA. I’d argue that the problem is that they have modelled themselves as institutions of representative democracy rather than as institutions of participatory democracy. As such, they have inherited the malaises that affect the very institutions they try to imitate: low turnout, public disaffection, lack of legitimacy and so on.
Can Community Councils become ‘mini-publics’?
There are alternatives to reform community councils. In my consultation response I’ve hinted at a radical one. How about transforming community councils into a sort of ‘mini-public’? Mini-publics were proposed decades ago by political scientist Robert Dahl. He wondered whether we could envision a sort of mini-populus representative of the population and empowered to learn and deliberate on public issues, and to contribute directly to decision-making. Mini-publics are designed to avoid the trappings of party politics and technocratic policy-making.
The use of mini-publics has increased notably in the last decade, and the variety of democratic innovations that are emerging based on this idea is remarkable: from the now classic Citizen Jury, to the Geman Planning Cell, the Danish Consensus Conference, or the Citizen Assemblies in Canada or Iceland. Mini-publics are formed by randomly selected citizens (for instance, selected by lot from the electoral roll), usually using quotas to ensure certain social characteristics, e.g. gender, age, ethnicity. Mini-publics are empowered to call in a diversity of ‘witnesses’ to provide evidence and arguments on a given issue: officials, citizens, community activists, politicians, third sector reps, business reps, academics, etc. Finally, the mini-public deliberates on the evidence before seeking a recommendation or decision.
There are various ways of adapting the idea to the context and remit of Scottish community councils. In any case, the first step would be to change the mode of selection of community councillors. They would not be appointed by election but by lot (quasi-randomly) and for a limited period. This will create community councils formed by a diversity of individuals from the community.
The second step is to reform the way community councils conduct their business. There is great potential to incorporate a range of information and communication technologies into the ways they work. More importantly, a mini-public requires a facilitator skilful at fostering dialogue and deliberation. The current ‘Chairperson’ model of community councils should therefore be changed for a ‘Facilitator’ model. The difference is that a facilitator strives to be impartial and focusses solely on process –upholding deliberative standards. Building on the same principle, the new community councillor would see herself as a mediator –rather than a representative- for the community. Accordingly, community councillors would be supported to become themselves facilitators of dialogue and deliberation in their local areas.
The third step would be to resource this new type of community council. Mini-publics, to function properly, need substantial support. In turn, public authorities would have an innovative mechanism for citizen participation upon which to build a robust structure for community engagement and participatory policy-making.
Community Planning and community engagement: making sense of their relationship
That kind of new community council could play a substantial role in Community Planning. They could help Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) to establish a clear link between their strategic work of coordination and community engagement on the ground. That link is often absent at the moment. Ideally, CPPs are supposed to be collaborative governance structures where participatory policy-making takes place. But you will be hard-pressed to find a CPP that works in that way –notwithstanding the important nudge by the Single Outcome Agreement. So far, instead of power-sharing structures, CPPs seem umbrella spaces for sharing information and, sometimes, achieve coordination. They do not seem to function as interfaces for the co-production of policy. The dominant players (Council and NHS) often set the rhythm of the Partnership, and everyone seems to accept that the key decisions are not going to be made there –so what’s the point in doing community engagement in this context?
If Community Planning is to fulfil its remit of bringing about a new type of collaborative and participatory politics, much needs to be clarified at each Community Planning Partnership. People need to sit down around the table and frankly share to what extent they see the CPP as the governance structure where their organisation is willing to engage in shared policy-making. And then, if the CPP evolves as a co-production space, they might consider how that process can be made more participatory by building community engagement at its centre.
However, if the CPP is mainly seen as a mandatory set of quarterly meetings where participants share decisions made elsewhere, then there is not much point in sharing that with busy citizens and communities. In other words, unless there is some real decision-making power to share, community engagement seems unnecessary in the context of Community Planning.
Final thoughts: legislating for culture change?
Most democracies are trying to get a working combination of collaborative governance (shared decision-making between agencies, stakeholders, etc) and community participation (local citizen participation in policy and decision making). Community Planning is the Scottish way of trying to produce that alchemy. The question is to what extent can Community Planning change the ways of working of a range of organisations (the partners), and therefore to what extent is it really worthwhile to engage communities with Community Planning.
Community engagement, in my view, should be about sharing decision-making power. Without this, community engagement loses its potential and can become a mechanism for co-option or, more simply, a waste of time. We need more clarity as to what extent public authorities, their departments, managers and officers are willing to undergo a transformation of their traditional understandings of policy-making as an elitist game of few. A participatory democracy hinges on having a public sector reshaped by participatory politics.
All in all, the CERB is limited in terms of what it can achieve. You can mandate duties and structures, but you can’t legislate for culture change. What the Bill can clearly do is to push for some radical reforms, hoping that they will nudge public authorities and community groups to rethink their role in a more participatory democracy. That is why I hope the Bill will take up the challenge of engaging in democratic innovation.
I’m not saying that using democratic innovations like participatory budgeting or mini-publics will be a silver bullet against the pitfalls of representative democracy or the resistances to participatory democracy. But they are potential game-changers that might transform the local governance landscape by introducing new players and ways of working. They could be catalysts towards achieving what Community Planning and ‘consultative’ community engagement have struggled to achieve so far: a more inclusive, democratic and inspiring way of governing ourselves.
Thursday 28 February 2013, 10am-5pm, Glasgow
The registration for potential participants is now open: http://bit.ly/WMPo3v
Please note that registration does not guarantee a place, as we will be selecting participants in order to reflect Scotland’s demographics.
We are gathering together 192 folk to spend a day in facilitated dialogue. Thinking, in a new way, about the future. Selecting participants to reflect Scotland’s diversity. Discussing our values along with what purpose and vision we feel is important for the Future of Scotland.
People work in groups, thinking together. Facilitators hold the space to make sure everyone has a say. Priorities from our morning session focus our afternoon. We consider how we can create a society where what we care about is brought to life in the way we live, work and play.
Connecting with the lived experience of citizens, harnessing the inherent wisdom of folk. Building on the wealth of work underway. Engaging people in meaningful participation, crafting a future fit to face the challenges of our century.
Inspired and supported by the assembly movement in Iceland, this unique event is coming together in a tight timescale, on minimum resources. We welcome support from people and organisations to make Thinking Together the best possible success on the day.
‘Thinking Together’ A Citizens Assembly hosted by So Say Scotland in partnership with Future of Scotland, SCVO, Church of Scotland, Electoral Reform Society, Academy of Government and others.
Find out more and join So Say Scotland: www.sosayscotland.org
The PPN’s Citizen Participation Network (which I convene) has been one of the pillars of So Say Scotland since its inception. Many of its members are already part of this exciting project that seeks to redefine and practice Scottish democracy as a people’s business (as opposed to a game amongst elites).
We have made much progress over the last few months, support by individuals and organisations is growing, and a range of great opportunities are afoot.
However, we’re a volunteer-driven platform and now we need to find someone to be our dedicated project officer / coordinator / change-maker for the next 3 months leading up to the first ever Scottish Citizens Assembly.
The job will be as challenging as exciting. Personally, I wish I could drop everything else for a few weeks and help make this happen. We hope that someone out there may be able to do so
Please read below (and pass it on!) the call for help by Susan Pettie on behalf of So Say Scotland.
So Say Scotland needs help!!
Imagine Scotland as a hub of democratic innovation, a Scotland where everyone has a say.
We need help in making it reality!! We need a very safe pair of hands and we need them quick.
Who’s willing to work all hours for peanuts on an innovative democracy project?
Starting 7th Jan or as close to, full time until March 31st – with an event on the 28th February.
We are attempting to bring together a range of partners to run a citizens assembly on a wing and a prayer.
Brilliant at organising, project managing, delegating, budgeting and accounting, co-ordinating, cold calling, hustling, charming, and keeping cool under pressure. Does this sound like someone you know?
At the moment we have raised 10% of our budget and that means pennies for this role. However it is a chance to make history for someone who can cope with next to no income or is coming to this on secondment.
There is an organising committee (staff time in kind) and a project direction team (volunteers) in place, along with offers of in-kind support and good will, we need a star to pull it all together. Do you know them?
Get in touch email@example.com
Susan Pettie on behalf of So Say Scotland
Democracy can always be made better. And with constitutional change high on the agenda, a referendum on independence expected in 2014 and the technology available to really scrutinise those that seek and hold power, this is the right time for Scotland to take stock and consider its democratic future.
Scotland’s Democracy has changed a lot since the establishment of our parliament in 1999. There have been strides such as reform of Local Government Elections and there have been ongoing improvements in openness, accessibility and transparency, but we still suffer many of the democratic deficits that affect the rest of the UK.
The Democracy Max programme
Over the next year our aim is to set out a vision of the ‘Good Scottish Democracy’, Democracy-Max, if you will.
The Electoral Reform Society Scotland, in collaboration with a range of partners including Edinburgh University’s Public Policy Network, is organising a series of roundtables and public events to debate issues of democracy within the changing political environment in which Scots live.
The events will be a non-partisan space where those with different views can debate and discuss Scotland’s future and where political rhetoric can be challenged and unpicked.
To open this series of events the Electoral Reform Society Scotland held a deliberative People’s Gathering for Scots to listen and share their perspective on democracy and the constitution and to identify what concerns they themselves want to see addressed as part of the Inquiry.
Find out more about the Demo Max programme, watch a video, and download the reports HERE.
Sign up for our next public event on 4th of December 2012 HERE.