4. Level of participation request activity
This section considers participation request activities across Scotland between 2017 and 2019, detailing the reported figures, potential trends and common themes.
4.1. Annual reporting figures
Part 3 of the Act requires that public service authorities publish annual reports detailing participation request activities. Although there is no standardised form for reporting, the Act states that annual reports must include:
- Number of participation requests received
- Number of participation requests agreed
- Number of participation requests refused
- Number of participation requests that resulted in changes to a public service, and
- Action taken to promote participation requests and support communities to make participation requests.
It is important to note that reports show the number of requests received, agreed to and refused in that year – many requests may be received in one year and decided the next year. As presented in Table 4, not all public service authorities submitted annual reports but some of them provided data informally to the research team. The findings presented here derive from annual reports 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 submitted by public service authorities as well as the informally provided data. These figures provide an indication of the ways in which participation requests are being implemented, understood and used.
|Formal Report||Informal submission||No submission||Formal Report||Informal submission||No submission|
In the 2017-2018 reporting period, of the 76 public service authorities required to report on participation request activities, 38 public service authorities submitted reports, 12 did not submit a full report but provided numeric data on participation request activities, and 26 did not share any information. Consequently, the participation request activity of 66% of public service authorities is taken into consideration for 2017-2018. In the 2018-2019 reporting period, of the 76 public service authorities required to report on participation request activities, 29 submitted reports, 3 did not submit a full report but provided numeric data on participation request activities, and 44 did not share any information. Therefore, the 2018-2019 data provided by 42% of public service authorities is considered here. The response rates (taking into account formal and informal submissions), broken down by public service authority type, are provided at Table 5. With the exception of transport network public service authorities, the rate of reporting reduced across the periods for all public service authority types.
|Overall response rate||66%||42%|
4.2. Number of participation requests received 2017-2019
Table 6 sets out the available data summarising the total number of participation requests received by public service authority, by type (see Appendix 1 for public service authority categories), and the number of participation requests that were either accepted or refused. In total, 46 participation requests were received across both periods, 27 were accepted and 14 were refused.
|Public service authority (type)||2017-2018||2018- 2019||2017-2018||2018- 2019||2017-2018||2018- 2019|
For the reporting period 2018-2019, public service authorities received 27 participation requests, accepted 15 and refused eight. This is compared to 2017-2018 when public service authorities received 19, accepted 12 and refused six. One participation request had not received a decision at the time of reporting. Compared to 2017-2018, the data suggests an increase in participation request submissions. Of the 27 that were received in 2018-2019, public service authorities deemed four of these 'invalid' because community participation bodies did not provide a clear intended outcome on the application. The invalid requests are not included in subsequent analysis.
Across both reporting periods, local authorities received the highest number of participation requests (n=18 [95% of total] and n=27 [100% of total] in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 respectively). Whilst in 2017-2018 there was one participation request submitted to a public service authority in the category of 'Other', in 2018-2019 no participation requests were received by non-local authority public service authorities. The significantly high numbers of participation requests submitted to local authorities, as compared to other public service authorities may suggest a need to raise awareness that public bodies other than local authorities, including health boards and transport networks, are also included within the participation request legislation. This is an area that may require further exploration to understand participation request trends in greater detail.
4.3. Participation request activity – common themes and potential trends
Using the data available, we can identify some common themes and possible emerging trends in participation request activity, participation request purpose, and the uptake of participation request by community participation body type.
4.3.1. Category of purpose
Across the annual reports in both reporting periods, the provision of information about the specific nature of the participation requests was inconsistent: some public service authorities reported this information and others did not. Indeed, the Act only recommends that the nature of the request is published: there is no requirement to publish the purpose of requests. By drawing together information presented in the reports, and triangulating this with publicly available application forms and outcome improvement process, Figure 3 details the number of participation requests by purpose, across the two reporting periods.
For the reporting period 2017-2018, the purpose of one participation request was not indicated. Two requests related to decision-making on land use, one request related to improvement of appearance, one focused on environmental sustainability while another one related to the representation of community organisations on public body committees. Three participation requests focused on infrastructure and service provision. Finally, a slightly higher number of participation requests were submitted relating to the provision of specific services (n=4) and traffic management issues, including road and pavement infrastructure (n=6).
For the reporting period 2018-2019, the purposes of two participation requests were not indicated. There were two requests related to decision-making on how money is spent, two related to decision-making on how land is used, one to improve access to current amenities and services. A slightly higher number is evidenced in participation requests related to general infrastructure and service provision (n=5), including requests to be involved in decision-making about local events and local regeneration plans. Other requests were for community representatives to sit on public body committees (n=3), related to specific service provision (n= 4) and traffic management, roads and pavements (n=3).
4.3.2. Uptake by different community participation body types
Across both periods 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, according to the available data, the majority of participation requests were submitted by Community Councils (n=13 in 2017-2018, n=12 in 2018-2019), suggesting that Community Councils are the most common form of community participation body to submit participation requests. In the reporting period 2017-2018, one participation request was submitted by a development trust, two by community groups, and two by a local charity. The community participation body type for one participation request submitted in this period was not indicated. In the reporting period 2018-2019, four participation requests were submitted by a local charity, two by development trusts and one by a sports club (Figure 4). Community participation body type for four submitted participation requests was not indicated in this period.
The Act specifically notes that community participation bodies do not have to be incorporated, or have a written constitution. In principle, this opens up participation requests to a wide variety of informal groups. In practice, however, the data shows that well-established and formalised community participation bodies such as community councils, development trusts and charities, tend to submit the majority of participation requests. This tendency for participation requests to come from more formal organisations and community councils raises two key considerations.
First, there is a potential for this tendency to have an impact on the extent to which participation requests may reduce local inequalities of outcome: research on community councils suggests that they do not currently reflect the socio-economic, gender, or ethnic diversity of Scotland. It is possible, of course, that the participation requests may have a positive impact on reducing inequalities despite coming from organisations that lack diversity.
Second, the lack of submissions by informal groups raises questions surrounding how well participation requests are understood by wider communities and the effectiveness of public service authority promotional activities. While many public service authorities had listed participation requests on their website, only some of them have been active in promoting participation requests to the wider public. It may be that the lack of submissions by informal groups is an outcome of public service authorities not being 'particularly proactive' (PSA 7) in terms of promotion. Indeed, during the interviews, there was a sense from some organisations that lack of promotion was behind low – or no – submissions.
"You think to yourself, 'how come we're getting so little of these requests? Is it because we're not promoting it correctly? It is because people are simply unaware?' You do start to question why we anticipated it being something that was quite high volume." (PSA 4)
While public service authorities stated that limited resources could partly explain the minimal promotion of participation requests, alternative participatory processes (developed prior to the Act) continue to be utilised by both public service authorities and community groups. These, and their potential influence on participation request submissions, will be discussed further at Section 4.4.
4.4. Use of alternative and existing processes
A further factor potentially influencing the level of participation request activity is the existence of alternative processes. The Scottish Government Guidance on participation requests states that participation requests are 'not intended to replace good quality existing community engagement or participation processes but are rather designed to complement and enhance them' (Scottish Government, 2017, p.8): participation requests are 'viewed as an opportunity for communities to establish formal dialogue with public service authorities' (Scottish Government, 2017, p.8) (emphasis added). It is not assumed that increasing participation requests are necessarily positive or negative.
Where public service authorities demonstrate commitment to the existing variety of engagement processes, this has, for some, resulted in minimising participation request submissions. One approach adopted by some public service authorities was the introduction of a pre-application stage as part of the process, where communities are encouraged to pursue alternative approaches to participation to get their desired outcome.
"The initial invitation is to a conversation, and what the elected members at committee had said was, 'If we can resolve things and we can talk to people and we get our directorates working in their direction without having to go down a more formal route, that's what we would do.'" (PSA 3)
Indeed, one public service authority report states that the reason there have been no participation requests is due to the success of other participatory mechanisms, while another public service authority highlights that the need for a formal approach such as participation requests should be the 'exception rather than the rule'. Whether this is 'ill-informed or not' (PSA 4) is yet to be seen, but it is likely that the outcome of this approach – to minimise participation requests through the application of other processes – has impacted upon the number of participation requests submitted. Within the public service authorities that have made statements about reducing the number of participation requests, no participation requests have been submitted to date. Public service authority focus on alternative and existing processes is further considered at Section 5.2.