The university as a school of democracy -or, personal memories in #USSstrike times


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The last few weeks of the strike to protect pensions for university workers in the UK have been, as most worthwhile things, both challenging and exciting. Yesterday this tweet made my day and brought back memories of a student experience that changed my life, personally & professionally. I shared that story in a publication some time ago (Public Dialogue and Deliberation, p. 7) and I’m reposting it here. 

My interest in public dialogue and deliberation began in the winter of 2001 at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Galicia, Spain). It was the final year of my degree in political science, and little did I know, I was about to learn more in the next three months than in the previous five years.

The Spanish Government at the time was preparing a new legal framework for our universities (the Ley Orgánica de Universidades, or LOU). The LOU was controversial. Most student organisations saw it as a threat to our public education system, as well as to our capacity – as students – to contribute to university policies. This set in motion one of the largest student mobilisations in our young democracy, with 200,000 students mobilised in 53 cities. The interesting part, however, was how this was to take place.

The diverse landscape of the student union movement in Santiago, as elsewhere in Spain, was the result of a history of acrimony amongst factions across the ideological spectrum. Accordingly, student organisations acted as partisan blocks with entrenched ideas and ways of working. Adversarial show-offs and deprecating routines were commonplace. It was a bit like that iconic scene depicting rival factions in the film Life of Brian, but less funny. This put many students off from getting involved in the union movement.

When the LOU protests began, many non-unionised students wanted to get involved. In Santiago this meant that, from the very first forums, a different modus operandi started to settle in. Unconcerned with the internal dramas of the student unions’ world, these  participants brought alternative ideas and communication patterns. Soon a tacit consensus emerged: this was not going to be simply a series of strikes spearheaded by various student unions, this was to become a student assembleary movement, including a broad range of participants.

Accordingly, assemblies were formed in each Faculty and there was also a general assembly every evening in a large public square. They typically included a diversity of non-unionised students as well as student representatives who rarely gathered together to discuss issues of common concern. One of the first collective decisions was for the unions to put down their respective flags and rally under shared banners. Everyone accepted that the assemblies would make the decisions and lead the mobilisations collectively using a distributed model of leadership.

The assembly movement became a truly creative operation in which thousands of participants became involved –the largest rally saw 25,000 participants through the streets of Santiago. Firstly, we discussed how to organise ourselves and the dynamics between the local and general assemblies. Soon we decided that we might as well take advantage of our disciplinary structures. Accordingly, the Faculty of Law’s assembly would be in charge of proposing amendments to the LOU, as well as coming up with an alternative law altogether. The assembly at the Faculty of Political Science would lead on political strategy. The one in Journalism would coordinate anything to do with the media. The one in History would lead on daily activities and keep records. And so on and so forth. These assemblies were open to everyone and always included members of other assemblies to keep communications going (this was before the social media era). We met early in the morning, and then reported to everyone during the evening’s general assembly.

You may begin to gather that this gave place to something beyond the typical string of demonstrations. One of the initiatives, for instance, was to take academic activities to the streets of Santiago. Accordingly, many of our lectures and forums were taken to public squares and corners. To do this, we forged an alliance with teachers, researchers and staff. During those three months the university was not simply brought to a halt, but actually transformed into the kind of alternative university that the assembly was building as a vision.

Santiago was a quintessential student’s city, and thus, we soon gathered substantial public support, from small businesses to various organisations (including local media), as well as individual citizens. Daily public activities (e.g. street art and performances, teach-outs, symbolic events, gigs, etc) and ongoing assemblies became the signature of the process. Therefore, alongside the demonstrations, myriad parallel processes of public dialogue and deliberation took place.

This multiplication of civic conversations across spaces became, in my mind, the closest thing I had witnessed to the vibrant public sphere advocated by some democratic theorists. This public sphere materialised in multiple conversations from street corners to classrooms, from shops to offices, from media outlets to living rooms across Santiago. For many of us, those were three months of I4-hour working days characterised by constant communicative action.

For the assemblies to work, we had to get beyond the usual communication rituals and transform previous patterns of shallow confrontational interaction. In other words, we had to find new ways of talking to each other, ways which would allow us to understand issues and positions, and to foster collective enquiry, in order to engage in collaborative decision-making.

To be sure, this was not an easy process, and the idealist tone of my personal account should not obscure the fact that these became extremely difficult conversations about complex issues beyond the LOU itself. The assemblies were dissolved after Christmas 2001-2002, as the process of amendments to the law proceeded. Much disappointment followed. Despite similarly strong mobilisations in many Spanish cities, the LOU was minimally changed as a result.

You may be left wondering, ‘well, in the end the conclusion was politics as usual’. I disagree. Firstly, many of these processes became  schools of direct democracy: spaces where we developed capacity to engage democratically across alternative, often opposing, perspectives within the student movement. Secondly, it changed relationships between students and organisations that previously struggled to find  ways of working together. Thirdly, these deliberative dialogues enabled patterns of communication that are crucial for building community resilience, social capital and collective action. Arguably, it was processes like this that prepared the ground for more recent assembly movements such as Los Indignados in Spain in the spring of 2011. Finally, the Santiago assemblies showed that ‘uninvited’ participatory processes can have impact on parliamentary business (e.g. many of our amendments were taken by opposition parties and tabled at parliamentary sessions), and that they can be as effective as traditional political party machines in creating agreements about strategies, actions, and alternative proposals.

Ever since that time I have wanted to understand the quality of communication which enabled those assemblies to become genuine sites for democratic talk oriented to problem-solving and the re-imagining of collective futures. How can we create spaces where passionate engagement can be put to productive ends? How can we use tensions, conflicts, and difference as catalysts for collective enquiry and action?

What are Mini-publics?


This Research Note introduces a range of ‘mini-publics’ and outlines key features, how they work, and how they may improve opportunities for citizens to contribute to public deliberation and participatory governance.


The idea of mini-publics was first proposed four decades ago by political scientist Robert Dahl. Inspired by democratic ideals and social science principles, Dahl envisioned an innovative mechanism for involving citizens in dealing with public issues. He called it ‘minipopulus’: an assembly of citizens, demographically representative of the larger population, brought together to learn and deliberate on a topic in order to inform public opinion and decision-making. A growing number of democratic innovations have flourished around the world based on this idea, from Citizens’ Juries, to Planning Cells, Consensus Conferences, Deliberative Polls and Citizens’ Assemblies. Mini-publics have been used to deal with topics ranging from constitutional and electoral reform, to controversial science and technology, and myriad social issues (e.g. health, justice, planning, sectarianism).

The paper includes answers to frequently asked questions about mini-publics. You can also see more examples and resources on the What Works Scotland website.





Beyond cynicism and complacency – Participatory Budgeting in Scotland

Source: Scottish Community Development Centre

‘Advancing Participatory Budgeting in Scotland: A learning event’ (Glasgow, October 2014) Source: SCDC

Participatory Budgeting is a process that enables citizens to deliberate on priorities and decide on the allocation of public money. It started in 1989 in Porto Alegre (Brazil) and has now spread to over 1,500 localities around the globe. One of the reasons it has become one of the most popular democratic innovations of the last decade is due to the substantial impact of the process in tackling inequalities, solving local problems and increasing civic engagement in some Brazilian cities. Its impact in other countries, however, has been often less impressive. There are clear signs that PB is gaining momentum in Scotland:

  • Various localities and organisations have conducted PB projects in the last few years, and an increasing number are currently planning to start new processes.
  • There is a Scottish Government PB Working Group in place since the last spring considering a range of issues including capacity building, alternative PB models and a Scottish approach to PB. The Group includes Fiona Garven (Scottish Community Development Centre), Angus Hardie (Scottish Community Alliance), Felix Spittal (Scottish Council of the Voluntary Sector), Martin Jhonstone (Faith in Communities), myself from Edinburgh University’s Academy of Government, and officials from the Community Empowerment Unit.
  • There have been some introductory training programs completed across the country –e.g. by PB Partners in numerous Local Authorities and by myself with three Area Partnerships in Glasgow. There is also a new set of advanced training packages designed by PB Partners, and supported by the PB Working Group, to be rolled out across the country to support those Local Authorities planning to develop PB processes. This will be co-funded by the Scottish Government and the Local Authorities involved.
  • Minister Marco Biagi (Local Government) and Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil (Social Justice) have shown interest in PB –i.e. requesting evidence from academics and analysts, and discussing PB with the Working Group. Marco Biagi is also building on the work that Derek Mackay started setting up the PB Working Group and support for PB training.
  • There have been a series of seminars and sessions on PB, including the recent ‘Advancing PB Learning Event’ summarised in this report. There are also plans for a high profile national conference in 2015.
  • The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) has endorsed the findings from the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, which includes PB amongst its recommendations to develop new forms of public engagement (see their recent landmark report ‘Effective democracy: Reconnecting with communities‘). Similar points have been made by civic organisations like the Electoral Reform Society Scotland as part of their Demo Max process, or the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations in their response to the consultation on the Community Empowerment Bill.
  • What Works Scotland, a three-year research and knowledge exchange program funded by ESRC and the Scottish Government, has included PB in its plans for research into community engagement in Scotland. I will be leading on this research, starting with a review of evidence about PB processes in Scotland to be published before the summer. WWS will therefore contribute to develop the evidence base for future policy developments on PB.

In post-referendum Scotland, it is becoming commonplace to talk about the aspirations of a growing number of citizens who demand new ways of participating in politics and policy making. PB is increasingly seen as an important part of the new ‘democratic renewal’ agenda in Scotland. Interestingly, PB is not only being supported by the national government of the Scottish National Party, but also at local level by Labour administrations such as Glasgow City Council (where the figure £1.4 million has been mentioned in relation to ‘community budgeting’ via Area Partnerships). In other words, at least for now, PB has not become a political football, and there may be an opportunity for cross-party support of a long term PB strategy for the country.

However, this apparent momentum should not be cause for uncritical optimism by participatory democrats. There are different ways of approaching PB, and not all are equally effective in securing civic empowerment, tackling inequalities and solving problems. PB, like citizen participation more broadly, can be put to undesirable uses and be hijacked by managerial rather than democratic agendas. For example, I understand those who find it suspicious that PB is gaining momentum at a time of increasing cuts to public services. However, a simplistic analysis underestimates the impact of the independence referendum in opening up space for a more participatory democracy. Perhaps it is time to navigate and expand that narrow patch of hopeful land left between cynicism and complacency, and create a Scottish approach to PB that works for most and makes a difference.

Petition for a National Council –A process to ensure participatory democracy after the Scottish referendum

I’m one of the many supporters of the non-partisan civic petition for a National Council to lead the process of involving citizens in shaping the future of Scottish democracy after the referendum.

You can see details about the petition, and sign up, by following this link.

scotland flagThe proposal is not a case either for or against independence, but a way forward towards a more participatory democracy. In the event of a Yes result, we will need a process to establish the terms for the negotiation with the rest of the UK, as well as a blueprint for a constitution-making process. In the case of a No result, we will still need a process to negotiate further devolution and establish the parameters of a more empowered Scottish democracy within the UK.

In both scenarios, our proposal seeks to avoid  elite-driven decision-making and put citizens at the heart of politics and democratic life.

Want to know more? Click here.

This proposal is not intended as a case either for or against independence, it is a proposal in favour of a participatory Scotland. It focuses on issues which may arise very quickly and may have to be addressed equally quickly in the event of a Yes vote. However the participatory process it outlines represents an approach to decision making which would represent a leap forward in democratic decision-making irrespective of whether there is a Yes or No vote. – See more at:

This proposal is not intended as a case either for or against independence, it is a proposal in favour of a participatory Scotland. It focuses on issues which may arise very quickly and may have to be addressed equally quickly in the event of a Yes vote. However the participatory process it outlines represents an approach to decision making which would represent a leap forward in democratic decision-making irrespective of whether there is a Yes or No vote. – See more at:

This proposal is not intended as a case either for or against independence, it is a proposal in favour of a participatory Scotland. It focuses on issues which may arise very quickly and may have to be addressed equally quickly in the event of a Yes vote. However the participatory process it outlines represents an approach to decision making which would represent a leap forward in democratic decision-making irrespective of whether there is a Yes or No vote. – See more at:

The Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill (CERB): A critical crossroads for Scotland’s participative democracy -by Oliver Escobar

crossroads -by Emilio Perez


A context for CERB: making local democracy more democratic

September 2013

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

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.


See my response to the CERB consultation here.