7. Longer-term outcomes of participation requests
This section considers the potential for participation requests to deliver longer-term outcomes, exploring whether participation requests may enable increased community empowerment, deliver improved public services and, finally, contribute to a reduction in local inequalities.
7.1. Potential for increased community empowerment
Myers et al. (2017, p.21) note that enabling communities to have the power to enter into a dialogue with public service authorities and an opportunity to exercise their voice "contribute[s] to greater community influence over the decisions that matter to them". This section considers the potential for participation requests to enable increased community empowerment, presenting common perspectives on what community empowerment entails, how these relate to participation requests, and some key challenges.
7.1.1. Perspectives on community empowerment
According to the Scottish Government, when communities feel empowered, there is:
- greater participation in local democracy;
- increased confidence and skills among local people;
- more people volunteering in their communities;
- greater satisfaction with quality of life in the neighbourhood.
During the interviews, community participation bodies and public service authorities defined 'community empowerment' from their perspective. Their responses were quite distinct, ranging from the importance of being heard to increased confidence and taking ownership (Table 9).
In defining an empowered community, CG 7 note that there 'definitely' should be an increase in confidence and skills among local people. CG 7 also define a disempowered community:
"They're quite weak. They've not got a lot of knowledge about the policy and their rights amongst the policy. They are still quite controlled by the local authority and local authority officers." (CG 7)
|Being heard/ valued||
|Taking ownership/ influencing||
|Local democracy/ decision-making||
|Increased confidence, increased skills||
|Transfer of power||
As such, from the perspective of CG 7, an empowered community would have strength and knowledge of policy, where there are more equitable power relations between the community and local authority. Finally, CG 7 notes that, where communities are disempowered, there is a sense that a community has to seek permission when 'having a go at things, taking things on, creating activity, delivering a service'. On the other hand, an empowered community would have the confidence, agency or autonomy to act alone. From the perspective of PSA 7, an empowered community is able to hold services to account and challenge the decision-making of public service authorities. All participants described community empowerment as a positive process/ state. Clearly, while descriptions were wide ranging, there is great overlap – between Scottish Government, community participation bodies and public service authorities – in defining what community empowerment entails.
7.1.2. Participation and community empowerment
Given that Part 3 of the Act came into force relatively recently (April 2017), this section considers the potential for participation requests to enable the empowerment of communities. Within a wider context of wider participatory processes (including participation request), interviewees commented on aspects associated with community participation:
"The more that communities get confident about what they can bring to the table, the more they are then able to do things independently on their own as well." (PSA 1)
"We've got lots of examples where communities are really moving forward and taking ownership and control of things." (PSA 1)
There were indications that the participation request process had enabled communities to exercise greater participation in local democracy – a key indicator in achieving community empowerment, according to the Scottish Government.
"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)
CPB 1 noted that the introduction of participation requests enabled the community participation body to exercise greater participation in local democracy, where previously available participatory mechanisms had failed:
"There were many months we sat through meetings and it seemed bleak. The decision had been taken. The council were all saying there is no likelihood of change. We probably went through a year of that and then suddenly, we can go through this participation request outcome improvement and gradually the council came around to see the community's point of view." (CPB 1)
Some community participation bodies noted that participation requests had enabled members of the community to volunteer and engage with the process. The outcome of the participation request process has been 'overwhelmingly positive' (CPB 1) for CPB 1's community. CPB 1 participated in an engagement event as part of the participation request process and reported a level of community volunteerism and engagement they had not previously experienced:
"It was a weekend of intense engagement. As you watch people draw up plans in front of you, it's extraordinary, and lots of people volunteering; architects volunteering their time to make it happen." (CPB 1)
7.1.3. Potential challenges
A key challenge associated with understanding whether participation requests can increase community empowerment relates to the assessment or measurement of changing levels of empowerment within communities. Clearly, underpinning the development of indicators relies on a definition of what community empowerment entails. Some community participation bodies questioned the indicators of community empowerment developed by the Scottish Government:
"What does that mean? You see… they have good intentions and they write lovely words, phrases like that. Nobody ever says, 'What does it mean?' … it is very difficult to find out an explanation for it." (CPB 5)
Most of the public service authorities were relying on anecdotes to provide evidence to demonstrate that participation requests – as well as wider participatory approaches – were, or were not, increasing empowerment. This has implications for the implementation of the Act and further support may be required to disseminate the broad indicators developed by the Scottish Government (and presented at the start of this section) or develop a shared understanding of what community empowerment may entail (which takes into account contextual differences).
PSA 2, who claimed to be very active in terms of community participation, had recently started exploring specific indicators for community empowerment, borrowing from other countries that have explored means of measuring empowerment.
"We're looking at social capital and we're looking at what evidence is there to show that capital has been built or improved. We're starting to look at that and [name] just sent me a couple of things the other day that might be indicators. I've been looking at the Tamarack Institute in Canada, some of the work they've been doing, looking at America and particularly Australia. They're big on community empowerment at the moment and just looking at what indicators have they been able to identify that we could potentially use. There's no sense in reinventing the wheel when somebody has already done it, so do a bit of research, pull that together." (PSA 2)
Finally, as discussed at Section 6.1, public service authority culture and a lack of support for participation requests in particular, and resistance to participation more widely, may undermine the implementation of Part 3 of the Act. As a result, this also has implications for the extent to which participation requests may affect change and enable community empowerment:
"When it works properly and you throw the resources at it, it has the potential to be fantastic and very empowering but, again, it's whether the will is there and whether we get it right in terms of who is going to culturally change and get in that bandwagon of thinking." (PSA 4)
7.2. Improved public services
According to Myers et al. (2017, p.21), an overarching aim of the Act is to 'increase the pace and scale of public sector reform, leading to improvements in services resulting in better outcomes for communities'. It is assumed that increased community involvement in decision-making, through participation requests and other processes, can support service improvement.
While public service authorities have a statutory duty to publish annual reports outlining participation request activity, there is no requirement for public service authorities to publish the purposes of submitted participation requests. As such, we do not have full information about the purposes of all participation requests submitted to date. The list below presents a sample of purposes of submitted participation requests, gathered from annual reports from 2017-2018 and 2018-2019:
- To make improvements to a play park, due to damage and need for improved access
- To work with local authority to plan the use of the Town Centre Fund recently allocated to local authority by the Scottish Government
- To enable better collaboration between community council and local authority in relation to large events
- To be more involved in the discussions about the improvements of the bus service in the local area
- Improve administration of local Common Good Fund
- Maintenance of grassed areas in local community To improve and encourage equitable participation in decision-making around participatory budgeting
- To establish more coherent and co-ordinated traffic (including pedestrian traffic) management
- To participate in discussions to enable enhanced availability of local affordable housing
- To be involved in discussions regarding the siting of a new secondary school
- Request for representation on a project team and to contribute to the project briefing process to ensure the views of the community are taken into account
Public service authority interviewees also discussed the potential of participation requests to improve services, where communities propose alternative approaches to service delivery.
"[participation request] gives me the opportunity for you to say to me, '[name], we can run your service better, here's the reason why we can run it better'… and I need to then formally review that and say, 'You're right, I don't need to pay people to do that'… if they're going to a politician and saying, 'I think you could deliver a council service better based on how you deliver social work, how you deliver education. This is a better mode of delivering it', and then somebody listening to that and saying, 'Right, okay, how do we educate kids better, how do we deal with adoption better? What's the process for adoption that actually streamlines that position?'. That's the sort of things I would expect that would be good for a community participation." (PSA 5)
While PSA 9 indicated that participation requests may not 'fundamentally' change services offered, because they are governed by statute, participation requests may have an important role in better shaping the service 'to be more inclusive or more responsive to community need'.
Interestingly, while some of the public service authorities identified the potential for participation requests to result in improvements to services, the perspectives of community participation bodies differed somewhat. For the most part, the expectations of community participation bodies focused on having a voice or being involved in a process, rather than on influencing change or improving services. However, given the sample purposes of the participation requests submitted, it is clear that participation requests are being submitted in order to improve services in local areas.
7.3. Reduced inequalities of outcome
Within the Theory of Change (Myers et al., 2017, p.21), it is argued that 'participation requests may make a contribution to a reduction in local inequalities of outcomes through encouraging greater engagement between communities, particularly disadvantaged ones, and public service authorities.' It is envisaged that this engagement leads to improved services that are better designed to meet local needs. Given the recent enactment of Part 3 of the Act, it is too early to draw strong conclusions in relation to the impact of participation requests on inequalities. As such, this section presents findings related to the potential for participation requests to address inequalities, rather than evidence that inequalities have reduced or increased.
Firstly, PSA 3 noted that there has been a shift within local authorities, where a focus is increasingly being placed on addressing inequalities:
"There's been a real marked shift within this council for me over the past five years in terms of that real focus on disadvantaged communities which is great because I didn't join this to work with the very privileged communities… if we can do light touch in that and there's things they can get on with and do themselves, great, but just trying to put that real focus on disadvantaged communities." (PSA 3)
Further, PSA 5 highlighted that participation requests have the potential to develop services to address inequalities by offering more informal groups the opportunity to form a participation body to affect change. Given that the Act specifically notes that community participation bodies do not have to be incorporated, nor have a written constitution, this opens up participation requests to a wide variety of informal groups and gives them a stronger voice:
"If you've got a group within an education establishment that have got kids with the same illness therefore one [person] making a noise, there's not much happening but if you bring [educational establishments] together in participation and say, 'We know what's best for our kids from an educational perspective', it's putting that idea forward to the education professionals and letting the education professionals say, 'We've looked at it, we think it's a good idea', or we think it's a bad idea, and the good thing about it is that we'll hear the reason why they don't think it's going to work and tell people why." (PSA 5)
The evaluation highlighted several implications for addressing inequalities, all related to the form of community participation bodies engaged in participation request submissions.
Firstly, in the periods 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, the data suggests that participation requests are less likely to be submitted by informal, less established community participation bodies. The lack of submissions by informal groups raises questions regarding whether participation requests have been promoted effectively by public service authorities and whether participation requests are well understood within wider communities.
A second, related tendency that emerges from this data is that community councils are most active in terms of submitting participation requests (see Section 4.3.2). Given that research suggests that they do not reflect the diversity of Scotland, this may have implications for the ways in which participation requests could have an impact on local inequalities of outcome, although it is possible that the participation requests may have a positive impact on reducing inequalities despite coming from organisations that lack diversity. Moreover, it is likely that in time more informal groups will become aware of the participation request process and will use the Act to influence local decision-making.
Finally, stakeholders noted a trend towards submission from higher capacity communities. These communities were characterised as having significant professional experience and time to undertake the participation request process:
"When you're looking at who is making participation requests and you see that there are quite a lot of community councils and no community groups – that I'm aware of – are making them in very disadvantaged areas. It's just very clear that there is a disparity there. It's the things that everyone could see happening in a way right at the very start of the Act." (Key stakeholder)
"[The community] had people who had some professional insight into this type of work already, so when the [street name] thing came along there were people who were ready to jump up and run with [participation request submission]." (CPB 1)
This tendency for high capacity groups to engage with participation requests was described as a potential 'risk' by Myers et al. (2017, p. 21) where they note that 'one of the risks … is that participation requests may contribute to an increase in inequalities, e.g. if there is greater take up by more advantaged communities'. One possible explanation of this is that public service authorities prefer to promote other participation mechanisms in communities where capacity building is necessary:
"Where we're already working with groups, often partnership working happens without it going down the participation request process because there's already a council officer engaged who can then pull in other council officers to work with groups. So, what we've been seeing so far is requests have mostly come in from groups who work autonomously and have quite a high skillset. That doesn't mean to say that groups who require more capacity building aren't taking things forward, but they're taking them through the informal routes because we're already supporting that." (PSA 1)
While early indications show that participation requests are likely to be used by higher capacity groups, whether or not this leads to an increase in inequalities, as suggested by Myers et al. (2017), is not yet clear. Public service authorities appear to be using other, pre-existing engagement and participation processes with less advantaged communities. However, it is important for public service authorities to ensure that participation requests are an option for all communities if they deem it necessary, regardless of their capacity.