Over the last decade the mechanisms for how citizens can participate more fully in decision making have been strengthened, including through participation requests, legislative asset transfer and participatory budgeting. With increasing pressures on local government budgets and the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, there has also been an increased focus on the term ‘participatory democracy, but what is it and what does this mean for elected members?
David Barr of the Improvement Service sat down with the following panel to find out more: Dr Oliver Escobar, senior lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, David O’Neill, former President of COSLA, and Councillor Elena Whitham, Depute Leader of East Ayrshire Council and COSLA spokesperson for Community Wellbeing, who is now MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley.
What is participatory democracy?
For Oliver Escobar, “it’s about making sure that we have a democracy where people feel that they can contribute to it, that they can participate in shaping the decisions that affect their lives, and that they can engage in the civic life that a lot of people in Scotland tend to value.”
David O’Neill, who was an elected member for over 30 years and served as leader of North Ayrshire Council for three terms, adds: “It’s important to emphasise that some people see that there is a contradiction between representative democracy and participative democracy. I don’t think that there is a conflict there, I think it’s two sides of the same coin. You have to have both of them, if you only have one, you will be less effective and you’ll get poorer outcomes getting delivered for communities.
“A very important part of it for me is that people in government, whatever sphere of government, as national, regional, or local, they tend to talk about empowering communities. It’s the other way around, it’s the communities that empower government. The communities, the people, the voters, they say to us as politicians, ‘We give you authority to go and do on our behalf, but you don’t do it to us, you do it with us.’ That’s why participative and representative democracy have to work hand in hand.”
Members are elected by their communities, if their communities don’t like the decisions that the members take can they not just vote them out at the next election? To this argument, Councillor Elena Whitham reflects: “I think for me it’s important to recognise that democracy doesn’t just exist on one day at a ballot box and then we have to wait a term to actually influence our citizens and what’s happening in our local areas and the decisions that are being taken, because I think we then end up that we’ve always got a populist that’s reactive. Being just reactive on one day every now and again is not the same as being a proactive community that has wellbeing and participation at its heart.”
Examples of processes that enable participatory democracy
As the conversation turns to examples of participatory democracy in practice, David O’Neill offers a recent example from North Ayrshire. The housing strategy in North Ayrshire involved seven blocks of high flats. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the council engaged with residents on the buildings to see how they move forward.
“Now, when I started as a councillor, the type of engagement that you would have had was, ‘What colour do you want us to paint the doors?’ Now the engagement is, ‘What do you think the future is for these buildings?’” explains David. After engaging with local people and informing them fully of the options, the conclusion what that some flats should be replaced with modern cost-effective energy-efficient, low-rise housing and others should remain and be refurbished.
“That was putting the decision-making process into the hands of the people who were actually living there. It was, again, a mixture of representative and participative democracy working hand in hand.”
Elena gives an example from East Ayrshire, where there are over 30 community-led action plans, the result of communities themselves organising locally to create a blueprint with facilitation from the council; a partnership working approach.
Having empowered communities meant that East Ayrshire were able to pass Covid-19 monies from Scottish Government to communities quickly, who then created their own bespoke response in partnership with council services. Volunteers were key workers.
“It meant that we’d get money out the door, which meant that we actually created community food larders and a response instantaneously, it felt like. For me, that demonstrated, if you get it right, you actually have a community that’s able and proactively reacts to situations around them.”
Challenges around participatory democracy
The panel is aware of significant challenges towards participatory democracy.
For one, as Oliver highlights, there are sources of inequalities in communities. Looking at examples in Scotland, but also internationally in places with digital civic infrastructures such as Taiwan, Estonia or New Zealand, communities that had experience in developing projects and engaging in participative processes tended to be far more responsive and capable of responding to urgent issues, as well have now planning for the medium and long term.
Oliver then leads onto the next challenge: participation not yet being thought of as a necessity.
“Maybe now is the moment to take it to the next level. Although, I do appreciate that there are a number of challenges and constraints, and many councillors will be thinking, ‘Well, maybe all of this participative stuff is a nice thing to have, but not necessarily something that we see as essential to our institutional system. Let’s wait until things are better or whatever.’ I think that that will be wrong because I think we need to see this as part of how our institutions work, just because it’s going to make them work better and be more responsive and have more of a mandate to act.”
These perspectives on participatory democracy were originally published as part of the Improvement Service Thought Leadership series. Read the paper in full, including conversations around finding a process for participatory democracy and what skills can help elected members to make processes successful: https://www.improvementservice.org.uk/news/thought-leadership-series/participatory-democracy-and-the-role-of-elected-members