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.