6. Intermediate outcomes of participation requests
Previous sections detailed activities, implementation and uptake, taking into account progress made and challenges encountered. This section explores the intermediate outcomes associated with the implementation of Part 3 of the Act. The outcomes identified within the Theory of Change (Figure 1) in Myers et al.'s Evaluability Report (2017) are: public service authority culture change; communities have greater involvement in public service authority decision-making; and greater understanding of public service authority decision-making. In addition, based on the data generated through this evaluation, this section presents evidence of an additional intermediate outcome – Improved communication and trust between communities and public service authorities.
Sections Six and Seven provide further analysis of the 'expectations' that communities thought they would/could achieve through a participation request. Where appropriate, these are subsequently reflected in the revised Theory of Change (Section Nine).
6.1. Public service authority culture change
In Myers et al.'s Theory of Change (2017), the outcome related to public service authority culture change is based on an assumption that participation requests will help to build and encourage more equal relationships between communities and public bodies, normalising community and public body partnerships. This section explores whether and how participation requests stimulate such changes in the relationships between communities and public service authorities.
Despite the relatively low numbers of participation requests across public service authorities, there was a sense, from public service authority interviews, that the provision of participation requests has been part of wider changes. Throughout the interviews, public service authority participants highlighted the importance of culture change within public service authorities and noted key challenges with this. They also highlighted the ways in which participation requests were helping to drive a change in culture.
Most community participation bodies indicated that their relationship with public service authorities had been challenging both historically and during the process. In defining these relationships, some community participation bodies had described them as 'very difficult' (CPB 4) and 'pretty negative' (CPB 3). Some public service authorities and community participation bodies highlighted that the culture of public service authorities does not encourage more equal relationships between communities and public bodies and undermines the underlying ethos of the Act, generally.
"There's a certain amount of detachment in local government where the local authorities have, up until now, enjoyed plenty of income and money and they've decided things for the community as opposed to involving the community in certain things. It's this detachment that has in a way detached the interconnection between local government and the community, because we don't consider ourselves to be anything other than just volunteers representing the community. As a consequence, things happen over which we have no authority or knowledge of." (CPB 5)
"Those that are in power have to be willing to share that power and that's where the locality planning part of what we do in [public service authority] is so important… initially the councillors weren't too keen on sharing that power." (PSA 2)
"These people [public service authority] don't like you standing up for yourself and that's what we do … and sometimes that's why our councillors don't come to our community council meetings because they know we won't stand for any rubbish. If they're not doing their job we'll call them out on it, and that's pretty bad at the end of the day because we shouldn't have to do that, but yes, it happens." (CPB 3)
"I'm not naïve. I think councils don't like being interrupted or stopped having made decisions … councils typically find it hard to make decisions and often are bound by policy and all sorts of political stuff that goes on. Making a decision is quite hard and then for a community to pop up and say, 'hang on a minute, we don't like this decision', and then to have to go through a whole process of improvement or participation request-type processes is probably an irritation to councils. I don't think we should be naïve and think that they won't try and tick boxes and run through a process without properly engaging with it or doing it in a meaningful way." (CPB 1)
Among public service authorities, there was agreement that participation requests are part of a wider agenda of encouraging collaboration between organisations and stakeholders to embed community participation in service delivery and design, much in-line with the proposals presented by Christie Commission (2011). Participation requests are viewed as one mechanism through which to encourage a change in practice. It was recognised that participation requests offer additional power to communities, as compared with other mechanisms as there is a legislative requirement for public service authorities to engage with communities through participation requests. The formal process means that public service authorities are not able to overlook or dismiss submitted participation requests, as discussed previously at Section 5.2. The legislative requirement was felt to be necessary within some public service authorities where there was not a consistent approach or understanding of community engagement and participation:
"What participation requests potentially can do and … will do, going forward, is to keep highlighting that and making it a bit more of a consistent thing across the whole organisation so that departments are now beginning to say, 'Oh, I need to take notice of this legislation and I need to get my department up to scratch in terms of the dialogue and the quality of the dialogue that it has with the citizens that it serves'." (PSA 4)
"This is a piece of legislation that's come in to get communities involved more in decision-making processes and it wasn't to be seen effectively as another workload... the idea was to improve the services the council actually provides at the moment and a lot of staff don't see it that way. They just see it as community groups finding another vehicle to complain about how services are being delivered and it's getting that message across because in a number of cases I had to remind colleagues that we're supposed to be proactively promoting this piece of work, this Act, to say 'We want to get you guys involved in the process'." (PSA 5)
Predominantly, the necessity for culture change within public service authorities was highlighted by stakeholders from local authorities who emphasised that, in the past, within councils' decision-making practice, little consideration was given to community perspectives. As such, participation requests help to increase value placed on including communities in decision-making.
"There are all sorts of consultations going on, left, right and centre about the budget etc. that is in a way just listening to what people are saying and trying to accommodate across the council what different areas are looking for, what different sets of people are looking for, and trying to accommodate that as opposed to maybe what would have happened in the past where it was a council saying, 'No, this is what we're doing', and maybe didn't listen as much or take account as much of what the people on the ground felt was important for their wee village or their wee town. It was a broad brush, one size fits all approach." (PSA 1)
That being said, culture changes can only occur over a prolonged period of time. One public service authority highlighted that, while a new policy certainly helps to change culture, wider institutional change cannot be achieved quickly:
"The work is to try to bring change through the entire council. Pretty good support from our Chief Executive who is definitely up for change but trying to get that transformation message to filter down through all of the council, through middle management to right down on the ground, it can be challenging because cultures build up over years and decades, don't they, and people evolve ways of doing things... I think there's a critical mass thing in this that once it gets beyond a certain point, it becomes the norm and it's drip fed over time. I'll not say it's one person at a time but it kind of is." (PSA 3)
Further, CPB 1 noted that wider culture change may be enabled by emerging good practice case studies, such as the case study presented at Section Eight, where participation requests have been able to generate good outcomes for both the community and the public service authority:
"It terms of actual culture change, to me it happens with good examples and so if we can get a good outcome here and… these guys can say, 'oh, that was fun', and they're appreciated and they come along and the community likes them rather than loathes them. You can't get culture change just in a vacuum, it has to be, 'oh right, my life's going to be better, my job's going to be better, I'll take that approach'. So, I hope we get a good outcome and can become a good example for both the community and the public bodies to go, 'Oh right, that's a good route to take.'" (CPB 1)
From the perspective of a non-local authority public service authority, there was less focus on participation requests as a support for culture change because there was less of a perceived need to alter the organisational culture. Whilst this public service authority was fully compliant with the Act, supportive of the ethos of participation requests and recognised the value of community engagement and participation, some stakeholders noted that they were unsure whether participation requests offered anything beyond what the public service authority already offered.
"It would be hard to get any more value added through this process because we do have quite an active role with the communities just now. We have community development managers so it's hard to see where the added value would come into this." (PSA 8)
While some community participation bodies reported negative relationships with public service authorities, this was not consistent across the sample. Other community participation bodies, including CPBs 2 and 5, reported that they have 'fairly' or 'pretty' good relationships with public service authority individuals. Further, CPB 1 indicated that the introduction of participation requests had catalysed enthusiasm within a public service authority for participatory working. The same participant indicated that initiating the participation request process allowed the public service authority to engage in positive discussions – something the community participation body had not previously experienced in exchanges with the public service authority.
"It did give them an 'in' into appearing to be positive in their engagement, and we responded positively. So, it did create a different basis into it. I mean, we have had a lot of engagement with them before, but this was… before we've either complained or rolled over, and this time it was like we weren't complaining or rolling over, we were saying: 'let's work together on this', and the participation request was part of that process of enabling that to happen." (CPB 1)
That being said, CPB 1 indicated that they are 'having to work very hard on maintaining good relations with [the public service authority]'. It was clear, however, that both the public service authority and community participation body involved with participation requests 1 and 2 (PSA 4 and CPB 1) (Table 3), acknowledge the value in community participation in general and in participation requests in particular. This was not the case for all interviewees. If there is not institutional support for participation request, however, it is possible that submissions enable an adversarial culture. One representative from CG 7 noted the potential for participation requests to introduce or exacerbate discord between stakeholders:
"If [public service authority] never validate our request all you've created is … an adversarial culture. They're pretty annoyed that we've put that in … So, that's not changing a culture, that's just closing the door, that's closing ranks against a community organisation. It makes it much more difficult for us to meet them in any kind of meaningful partnership if they see us as an adversary." (CG 7)
CG 7 operate under a public service authority actively seeking to minimise participation requests (PSA 3); the public service authority regards participation requests as a failure of existing participation processes. On a similar note, PSA 1's reporting of a participatory process indicates an element of discord between community participation body and public service authority:
"Whenever I speak with [name] or any of the community council now, they still bang on that they haven't been consulted and it really winds me up because they have been consulted. We've took them along very much with us during the [outcome improvement] process…They still feel like they've been let down on the consultation and you think, 'Oh my God, how much do you want?'" (PSA 1)
As a result of the more negative outcomes of participation, while the interviewee would 'rather keep [the community council] on board and keep them involved… higher up, there's this reluctance to further engage' with the community council (PSA 1). Community expectations are considered further at Section 6.2.
While many community participation bodies and public service authorities confirm that participation requests are helping to drive a change in culture, the data suggest that this may not be the case across all the organisations in the sample, and that much relies on the public service authority and community participation bodies acknowledging the (potential) positive outcomes of participation generally and participation requests specifically.
6.2. Communities' involvement in public service authority decision-making
A potential outcome of participation requests identified in Myers et al.'s (2017) Theory of Change (Figure 1) is the changing level of community involvement in public service authority decision-making. Myers et al. (2017, p.20) note that participation requests are 'intended to enhance existing community engagement and participation processes (where required), and ultimately lead to greater involvement of communities in public service authority decision-making'. The assumption is that increased community involvement in decision-making can result in service improvement.
In many cases, the participation request process and community participation body involvement had influenced the outcome of public service authority decision-making.
"The local groups and the people around there, and this is not arguable, this is a fact, they did influence the final decisions on that… I can tell you that, and I'm convinced that as a result of the participation request process, that made that group, those specific people who live and work in that area, able to influence the outcome of what the council does with that land. That, in itself, is a good example of participation requests working to the best advantage of the people." (PSA 4)
In the annual reports, some public service authorities had provided examples of where and how participation requests had resulted in changes to public services (Table 8).
Prior to engaging in the participation request process, one community participation body indicated that their attempts to engage in a public service authority decision-making process had not been fruitful:
"Previously, certainly in my first co-opting on the community council, what would happen is the councillor would come, we would raise concerns and issues. The councillor would say they'd go and see about it and then we would eventually get something back, feedback, and it took quite a while. We never got access at that stage to really… the movers, the shakers." (CPB 2)
Prior to the participation request process and in addition to raising concerns with councillors, members of CPB 2 had engaged with the Community Planning Partnership, 'presented reports, done surveys, made recommendations, sought… cajoled, embarrassed, gone to the press, been angry people in the local newspaper', and had approached a number of councillors representing three different political parties, yet the community participation body had not made progress nor engaged in meaningful dialogue. Through the participation request process, however, they note:
"We now have access to the people who advise the councillors and what we're now getting is direct decisions, why decisions are getting made. We're now getting the opportunity to put in other concerns and raise questions and get answers." (CPB 2)
In discussing the community involvement, during the second meeting held as a result of the participation request, a representative of CPB 2 noted:
"We had the stakeholders. We had the police, we had the council, we had the roads department, parking, cleaning. So, we were suddenly getting together in the same room everything that affected the community. So, we could now ask direct questions. Before, if you were lucky, you'd get maybe one or two questions to the councillor… so, it's working so far in so far as we're now raising concerns and we're getting answers back." (CPB 2)
CPB 2 note that, through this process and because they have "explanations and answers to things that we didn't know before", this has enabled them to do two things: firstly, they are better able to disseminate information to the residents of their communities. Secondly, by identifying a problem and receiving a response from the public service authority, they now have the opportunity to look for solutions to the problem. In addition, through the appointment of a key person at the public service authority, CPB 2 now no longer have to approach councillors directly. Rather, they report that their key person is an effective conduit, working to provide answers and address concerns.
While some community participation bodies and public service authorities acknowledge that community involvement in public service authority decision-making has progressed through the participation request process, a representative of one community participation body, whose participation request had been refused, was less positive and sceptical of the extent to which community involvement will influence the final decisions made by public service authorities.
"At the end of the day, it's always going to be these officials, these people in government that are going to have the last say because they'll only want to listen to what you've got to say if they're in agreement… if you're in agreement with them. Honestly, that's what it is. I've been doing this for too long, I've spoken to many MPs, MSPs, councillors, I don't have faith in any of them. None of them, nope." (CPB 3)
The interviewees highlighted some steps which could be taken to improve community involvement. For example, CPB 2 stated that, during dialogue with the public service authority, the material made available to the community 'wasn't the most satisfactory': the councillor involved was not fully informed and could only provide information that they themselves had been given. Similarly, CPB 1 note that they 'never really were clear on how [their] evaluation fed into the eventual selection of the bidder' – i.e. the decision made by the public service authority. In addition to greater clarity or transparency, community participation bodies noted that involvement would be improved by having access to a wider group of stakeholders. For example, CPB 2 noted that they would like to include 'the higher echelon of the council' as well as private limited company stakeholders, although they recognised that these latter groups are not required to engage with community organisations.
Further limitations to the participation request process were discussed by the interviewees. One public service authority highlighted that community participation can lengthen decision-making processes, and have cost implications – an unintended outcome of Part 3 of the Act and a key consideration, given the resources available to public service authorities.
"We said, 'look, we understand what you're asking for and you want to be involved in this and you want to be involved in that, but I have to deliver it efficiently, which means I don't design it by committee'. Ultimately somebody has to make decisions. The issue I have with construction projects is you don't have that same flexibility to take on people's wishes. Some of it's very obvious, you go, 'Well, it's just not safe to do that', some of them you go, 'It'd be great if we had all the money in the world, but we don't'. So, can we afford to build it? That's the first question for us, and can we afford to operate and maintain it? Because that's the other question. So, we might be able to afford to build it, but actually the costs of operating it and maintaining it means that we're not viable. So, there has to be perhaps greater consideration given to… is it a one size fits all for community participation requests, or do we have to look at subtly different processes depending on what it is the community wants to participate in?" (PSA 1)
PSA 1 suggested that different participation processes may be needed in different contexts – infrastructure and policy, for example. Further, community participation bodies highlighted that the extent to which communities are involved in public service authority decision-making may be dependent on timing; if a public service authority decision-making process is already at a late stage, community involvement may not be well received:
"[public service authority] have an application pending with the Scottish Government to the Communities Capital Regeneration Fund and they probably don't want us involved until there's an outcome on that, a decision on that fund application… Because once the money hits the ground they have to build the building and they probably don't want to be talking to us about, 'Well, what kind of building? Is it the right building? Is it the best use of that money? Could it have been used better elsewhere?' They probably don't want that discussion." (CG 7)
A transport public service authority (PSA 6) indicated that local community participation can be at odds with commercial interest and national legislative requirements – in terms of the need to deliver statutory services and consider the wider context:
"When we make a decision about whether to provide a socially necessary [transport] service, we have to do it on the basis of what the likely demand will be, we have to make sure that the [transport] service will provide access to certain local services etc. but we also have to make sure that the [transport] service doesn't in any way compete… with the commercial service. So, that tends to restrict your options in a sense. So, you could have a discussion with a community group about that service or about how those decisions were made, but there might be relatively limited scope to make significant change. Yes, it is this issue of expectation versus the practical realities of what we as an organisation are required to do as well." (PSA 6)
The data also highlighted a key consideration for the evaluation surrounding the nature of participation – do participation requests enhance truly meaningful participation or merely encourage community consultation? The experiences of CPB 1 suggested that the involvement of the community was initially limited to consultation during the outcome improvement process:
"The online questionnaire, they basically asked, do you want this to be commercial or let or residential? That was my interpretation of it… It got me really annoyed because they didn't say, 'What do you want with the site? Is this okay?', it just said, effectively, 'do you want this to be residential or…?', so assuming the sale was going ahead. It wasn't asking people about it or what they want." (CPB 1)
The nature of the process initiated by the public service authority suggested that 'the council were on a mission to sell the site' (CPB 1) – something that the community were opposed to. As a result, 'many in the community reacted very badly to it' (CPB 1). They stated that one of the focus groups, initiated as a result of the participation request process, responded with a clear message to the public service authority: 'This isn't an okay process you're engaged in' – meaning both the process of the consultation and the proposed sale. That being said, while early involvement may have been limited to consultation, over time, as the outcome improvement process continued, the relationship between CPB 1 and the relevant public service authority developed into more meaningful participation.
The experiences of CPB 5 were similar to CPB 1's early participation request process, in that they felt that the public service authority had already made a decision and community participation was not meaningful:
"I also suspect that even before the participation request was granted that [public service authority] had made its mind up on what it was wanting to do, and the terms in which the participation request was granted … you felt they were trying to shove us sideways. They were adhering to the letter of the legislation rather than the spirit of it." (CPB 5)
A final consideration under this outcome, community involvement in public service authority decision-making, pertains to expectations of outcome. Some public service authorities discussed the potential relationship between improved community involvement in decision-making processes and raised community expectations:
"Engagement leads to expectation. So, if I engage with you, the expectation is that you will get what you want…. It's a real difficult fine line to deal with. I'm not negating that we shouldn't do engagement. I'm an advocate of it… If you go to a public meeting and it's suggesting they're about to close a [public service], the expectation of the whole of the public in that particular community says, 'We don't want it to close' that by default, we won't do it… Yes, we're listening to you but we're going to close it anyway, 'Well, what's the point in listening to us if you've already made up your mind?'. The Empowerment Act that the government put in place further supports that expectation." (PSA 7)
However, this statement contradicts the view of some community participation bodies who stated that, even if they do not get the outcome they desired, being involved in the process is a significant improvement. Transparency is further discussed at Section 6.3.
6.3. Increased understanding of public service authority decision-making
According to Myers et al. (2017), greater community participation in public service authority processes through mechanisms such as participation requests may lead to increased understanding of these processes. This section explores whether and how participation requests contribute to community understanding of public service authority decision-making. As reported in Section 6.2, participation requests have enabled the community participation bodies to engage with public service authority decision-making by being invited to join a dialogue with key stakeholders engaged in the decision-making process. By engaging with public service authorities through the participation request process, some community participation bodies noted that they are now better aware of the processes involved and the rationale behind public service authority decision-making.
"We've sat there and we've watched what's being discussed, especially with regards to our own stuff because we want to know what's actually being said and who's supported us at the end of the day." (CPB 3)
CPB 5 indicated that a key motivation behind their participation request was to gain an understanding of public service authority decision-making:
"[We wanted to be] able to approach them and get a reason, or get a reason why something wasn't being done, or an idea when it was going to be done." (CPB 5)
The importance of enabling communities to better understand public service authority decision-making was raised by PSA 2, who claim to be very active in terms of community engagement.
"You are always going to get people that are involved in the community that are never quite happy with your response, but as long as they can't question your process. So, by clearly identifying what your process is and saying, 'Look, you might not be happy with the outcome, nobody might be happy with the outcome', … I think some people don't know the rationale behind some of the decisions that are being made as well. So, to involve them and let them see exactly… be transparent with them as to what's going on." (PSA 2)
It is important to note that PSA 2 seek to actively reduce participation requests and instead adopt alternative mechanisms, outside of the Act, to enable participation. Their experiences suggest that participation requests are just one potential mechanism to enable understanding of public service authority decision-making.
That community participation bodies place value on gaining a better understanding of public service authority decision-making processes was raised by PSA 2, as well as community participation bodies. Further, community participation body interviewees also acknowledge that full involvement in the process may not be achievable, given the sensitive or confidential nature of some aspects of the process (financial contracts, for example).
"You can fire off an email or you can actually contact them directly and say, 'I'd like to understand, tell me why is this being decided? What are the pros and cons that you've actually seen', regardless of what we think it would be nice to know… some of it might be sensitive financially … but that's fine, you can tell us that and say, 'We can't tell you this because it's privileged'. That's fine, we get that, but if they get that information bit, why not?" (CPB 2)
At Section 6.2, the importance of transparency in enabling community involvement in public service authority decision-making was introduced. Here, under this outcome, transparency was raised again. Community participation bodies and public service authorities link greater transparency with participating in discussions.
"It's just about being honest with people is the key to this… There can't be any hidden agendas in this stuff. It has to be about: what do you want us to do? We can do that, that and that, but we can't do this, and if we can't do this then we need to explain why we can't do it." (PSA 4)
"If you can get the residents to engage then … you have people who are better informed, so you don't have people who are resentful or angry or whatever, so it's a win-win. If you treat us like mushrooms and keep us in the dark, we won't take well to it… even if I don't get the answer I want, if somebody explains to me then that's beneficial as far as I'm concerned. As long as somebody tells me. Open, transparency, be honest, tell us." (CPB 2)
For CPB 2, the outcome of improved transparency is that they are better able to communicate with the wider community, answer concerns and work to develop solutions. As such, participation requests have contributed to community understanding of public service authority decision-making.
6.4. Improved communication and trust
In addition to the outcomes identified by Myers et al. (2017), the evaluation identified a further potential outcome of the participation request process. Throughout the interviews, the topic of 'trust' was raised by both public service authorities and community participation bodies. Community participation bodies do not place much trust in public service authorities, while public service authorities identify that communities do not always trust the motivations and decisions of authorities. Establishing trust may rely on culture change in public service authorities and enable involvement in public service authority decision-making and, therefore, improved trust is presented as a potential additional outcome of participation requests.
"If you know people and you trust them, you talk to them. If you don't trust them, which is a problem for a lot of councils and I think we're there too, although we're coming on with that, I think we're moving on that. If you don't trust them, you don't talk to them, you definitely don't. If you see them as authority figures who do things to you, you're not going to have a conversation really." (PSA 3)
"[We need to] improve the relationships we've got with communities to build up a bit more trust because over the last few years, there's been a depreciation of trust." (PSA 4)
Interestingly, one public service authority proposed that participation request submissions are a symptom of this reduction in trust placed on public service authorities.
"It would appear [participation requests are] driven from an initial angst or a feeling of betrayal or lack of trust and that's what's driving these community groups to say, 'Hey, what about us? We're still here and we're important and we do represent the community'." (PSA 4)
At the same time, however, PSA 4 goes on to identify participation requests as a vehicle to build trust between public service authorities and community participation bodies.
"I see it as a vehicle to enhance the relationship we have and the trust that we have with the citizens of [area]. It's about the people and the citizens that we serve because ultimately, in the past, there's been too much of, 'Why is the council doing that? It doesn't care what we think'." (PSA 4)
Indeed, submitting participation requests and entering into a dialogue between community participation bodies and public service authorities may enable a process of trust building. At the same time, it is important to note that some participants indicated that participation requests have also enabled greater understanding of community perspectives on the part of public service authorities.
"It's improved the communication, it has developed into communication, and it's being able to see somebody else's point of view and it works both ways. He sees our point of view and we can see his point of view, so there's a mutual understanding developed." (CPB 5)
Mutual understanding of priorities and processes is an important potential outcome of the implementation of Part 3 of the Act. 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. As discussed at Section 6.1, 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.
Importantly, and as highlighted by PSA 2, which claims to have a well-established relationship with their community, participation requests are one of several mechanisms for building trust with communities and, as such, should not be treated as the only tool facilitating trust building. Indeed, the Act specifies that participation requests should complement, rather than replace, existing practices of participation.