This report presents findings from an evaluation of Part 3 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 (the Act). Implemented on 1 April 2017, Part 3 of the Act introduced participation requests, offering an opportunity for increased community engagement between community participation bodies and public service authorities. The Scottish Government is statutorily required to evaluate Part 3 of the Act within three years of its enactment and to report on how participation requests are being implemented by public service authorities, utilised by communities, and what impact they have on community empowerment and reduction of inequalities of outcome. The evaluation should also consider the need for an appeals mechanism. As part of the Scottish Government's commitment to review participation requests, a team at Glasgow Caledonian University was commissioned to undertake research to document and evaluate the processes and outcomes related to participation requests, with a particular focus on how Part 3 of the Act addresses (or reproduces) social and economic inequalities.
The evaluation focused on the extent to which participation requests may contribute to a series of intermediate and longer-term outcomes which were set out in a study conducted by Myers, Geyer and Craig (2017), who assessed the evaluability of Part 3 of the Act and developed a Theory of Change model to describe how the implementation of Part 3 of the Act might contribute to change. The evaluation was carried out in four stages and adopted a range of methods to collect primary data (in-depth interviews with key stakeholders [n=30], participant observations [n=6] and a focus group with four participants). Secondary data were sourced through the collation of key documents including participation request annual reports from public service authorities. Qualitative data were analysed in NVivo. Quantitative data were extracted and analysed in SPSS.
Findings: public service authority implementation and community participation body use
- According to available public service authority annual reports, between 2017 and 2019 public service authorities received 46 participation requests. Of these, 27 were accepted and 14 were refused.
- The majority of participation requests were received by local authorities (95% in 2017-2018 and 100% in 2018-2019) and submitted by community councils (68% in 2017-2018 and 52% in 2018-2019).
- Public service authorities promoted participation requests through varied pathways (website, first point of contact, external and internal training and events). Extensive promotion was constrained by financial and time pressures on public service authorities.
- The interpretation of participation requests frequently varies between public service authorities and community participation bodies.
- Some public service authorities struggled to see the added value in the introduction of participation requests, arguing that the underlying principles of participation requests were already embedded throughout their working practice. Some defined participation requests as 'prescriptive legislation', viewing submitted participation requests as representative of a failure in existing systems, approaches and processes designed to enable dialogue.
- Community participation bodies interpreted participation requests as a mechanism through which community groups gain power or legitimacy – public service authorities are not able to overlook or dismiss submitted participation requests, given the formal process. This was particularly the case in areas where it was felt that public service authorities were failing to actively involve local communities in addressing problems or developing solutions.
- There is potential for the absence of an appeals mechanism to undermine the rationale behind Part 3 of the Act, as public service authorities can refuse requests based on loosely and locally-defined criteria. Although it is too early to determine whether an appeals process is needed, this should be kept under review as the data on the numbers of participation requests, acceptances and refusals develop.
- According to available public service authority annual reports, between 2017 and 2019 only two public service authority annual reports made reference to disadvantaged or marginalised groups.
Findings: intermediate outcomes of participation requests
- Public service authority culture change
Many community participation bodies and public service authorities confirm that participation requests are a mechanism which encourages a change in culture within public service authorities. Change in culture relies on the public service authority and community participation bodies acknowledging the (potential) positive outcomes of participation generally and participation requests specifically.
- Communities' involvement in public service authority decision-making
Evidence suggests that outcome improvement processes can enable improved community participation body involvement in public service authority decision-making and contribute to service improvement. The evaluation highlighted potential limitations to the participation request process (cost implications; lengthened decision-making timelines; conflicting commercial interests and local community participation).
- Increased understanding of public service authority decision-making
By engaging with public service authorities through the participation request process, some community participation bodies noted that there is improved transparency: they are now better aware of the processes involved and the rationale behind public service authority decision-making. The outcome of improved transparency for one community participation body means that they are better able to communicate with the wider community, answer concerns and work to develop solutions.
- Improved communication and trust
The evaluation highlights that participation request submissions may be a symptom of a reduction in trust placed in public service authorities by community participation bodies. At the same time, participation requests may also act as a vehicle to build trust and improve communication between public service authorities and community participation bodies – a valuable outcome where previous relationships have been strained. To enable trust and build communication, much relies on key stakeholders, including community participation bodies and public service authorities, placing value on transparency and participation. If public service authorities do not support participation requests, and the wider ethos behind the Act, it is possible that participation request submissions will exacerbate tensions between the public service authority and the communities it serves, contributing to an adversarial culture, rather than leading to improved communication and trust.
Findings: longer-term outcomes of participation requests
Given the recent introduction of Part 3 of the Act (April 2017), it is too early to draw conclusions in relation to the longer-term outcomes of participation requests. The potential for participation requests to enable longer-term outcomes includes:
- Potential for increased community empowerment
Some community participation bodies reported that participation requests had enabled aspects of empowerment, including exercising greater participation in local democracy and increased volunteering in the community. One community participation body reported that the participation request process had been 'overwhelmingly positive' in terms of community engagement. Challenges remain in terms of assessing or measuring changing levels of empowerment within communities.
- Improved public services
Some of the public service authorities identified the potential for participation requests to result in improvements to services, particularly in terms of increasing service inclusivity and responsiveness to community needs. Given the participation request purposes listed in annual reports, evidence suggests that participation requests are being submitted in order to improve services in local areas.
- Reduced inequalities of outcome
There is some evidence that participation requests are more likely to be successfully used by higher capacity groups, including those with significant professional experience and time to undertake the participation request process. There is a risk that this may lead to an increase in inequalities, as suggested by Myers et al. (2017), but there is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions on this point as yet.
Recommendations for the Scottish Government include:
- Ensuring public service authorities meet statutory annual reporting duties to enable on-going monitoring of Part 3 of the Act. Such monitoring will enable future assessments of the longer-term impact of participation requests.
- Supporting the participation of marginalised and disadvantaged communities by (a) continuing to work with partners to identify actions that may help to overcome barriers to participation of marginalised or disadvantaged groups, where participation requests might support their aims; and (b) developing more accessible information and guidance about participation requests.
- Consideration of an appeals process: investigating how such a process would work and be fair and robust.
- Raising awareness among public service authorities of the intentions behind Part 3 of the Act. Lack of understanding and support towards participation requests has the potential to create an environment in which participation requests are more likely to be refused, or not submitted. Such positions are contrary to the intention of the Act and may limit the achievement of intended outcomes.
Recommendations for public service authorities include:
- The identification of a key, internal contact person. This would help to speed up the participation request process, act as an effective conduit between community participation bodies and public service authority personnel, drive culture change in public service authorities and allow other public service authority personnel to focus on other responsibilities.
- Wider promotion of participation requests to raise internal and external awareness of Part 3 of the Act. This can happen through disseminating the policy intent of participation requests, identifying the breadth of public service authorities covered by Part 3 of the Act, making explicit the objectives of an outcome improvement process, and making clear the range of community groups that can use participation requests.
- Public service authorities should encourage participation from disadvantaged and marginalised communities, in order that they may contribute to developing services that effectively support their needs. Active promotion, tailored and accessible participation mechanisms and related support may enable this.
Early findings suggest that participation requests can help to enable participation, establish shared understanding and build improved communication between public service authorities and communities. Participation requests represent a means by which communities can have more influence in decision-making. To maximise the impacts of participation requests, and to achieve the desired longer-term changes in community empowerment envisaged by the Act, government and public service authorities need to take further steps to promote participation requests and improve engagement – focusing on less advantaged communities in particular – and to continue to improve monitoring and tracking of the results.
This study was conducted using available quantitative data. Due to limited reporting by public service authorities, our findings may not reveal the full picture of participation request activity in Scotland. Qualitative data derive from a limited sample. While steps were taken to ensure that the sample had a breadth of knowledge and experience of participation requests and wider participation, the findings reported here may not represent the full range of perspectives on participation requests.