Local Governance Review: analysis of responses to Democracy Matters

An analysis of the responses received during the Democracy Matters engagement phase of the Local Governance Review.

Executive Summary

The Local Governance Review was jointly launched in December 2017 by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) to consider how powers, responsibilities and resources are shared across national and local spheres of government, and with communities. There are two strands to the Review:

(1) community level decision-making; and
(2) public service governance.

Strand one focuses on communities and has been called ‘Democracy Matters’ (abbreviated as DM). This report is an analysis of responses to the DM engagement.

The Democracy Matters engagement

DM was designed to take a bottom-up approach to engaging people and communities. Scottish Government and COSLA worked in partnership with a group drawn from the community sector, equalities groups, the public and private sector to design the engagement process collaboratively. The group developed a short set of open questions designed to guide DM discussions, and a range of materials – designed to be as inclusive as possible – to support people to have discussions in their community.

Democracy Matters

Your Community. Your Ideas. Your Future.

There were five DM questions:

1. Tell us about your experiences of getting involved in decision-making processes that affect your local community or community of interest?

2. Would you like your local community or community of interest to have more control over some decisions? If yes, what sorts of issues would those decisions cover?

3. When thinking about decision-making, ‘local’ could mean a large town, a village, or a neighbourhood. What does ‘local’ mean to you and your community?

4. Are there existing forms of decision-making which could play a part in exercising new local powers? Are there new forms of local decision-making that could work well? What kinds of changes might be needed for this to work in practice?

5. Do you have any other comments, ideas or questions? Is there more you want to know?

People were able to get involved in a range of ways:

  • Community conversations: many communities organised a local event to discuss the DM questions.
  • Individual responses: people were able to submit their individual views by email or post. There was no required format for responses.
  • Organisational responses: organisations submitted a range of views on community-level decision-making.
  • DM postcard: it asked two of the DM questions and provided space to write a response and return by freepost.
  • An online forum: people were able to contribute to an online dialogue about DM.

To mark the completion of this first phase of engagement, 13 regional events were organised across Scotland in November and December 2018.

The analysis of responses to Democracy Matters

DM was designed to give communities flexibility and choice about how to run events and how to submit responses. As a result, the submissions do not follow a consistent format; they reflect a significant and varied body of material. A qualitative approach had to be used for analysing this material. The qualitative analysis presented in this report describes the spread and broad pattern of responses. It is not possible, or valid, to quantify the views and experiences described in submissions. The analysis presented reflects the perspectives of the individuals, communities and organisations that took part in DM; the analysis cannot be generalised to Scotland’s population as a whole.

Who got involved in Democracy Matters

There were 334 submissions which comprised:

  • 127 submissions from community conversations. From the information provided, it is estimated that 2,967 people took part.
  • 61 submissions from individuals: 23 by email, 117 by postcard, 21 online.
  • 46 submissions from organisations. Some organisations used events to gather broader views to inform their submission. It is estimated this involved 885 people.

In addition, 226 people attended the regional events. Overall, it is estimated that 4,240 people took part in DM.

DM was designed to be as inclusive as possible so that communities of place and communities of interest or identity were equally able to take part. It is evident from the submissions received that a very diverse cross-section of communities in Scotland chose to take part, described below.

Two fifths of the community conversations involved communities of place. The other three fifths involved communities of interest or identity; and three quarters of these reflected the experiences of communities of interest or identity in a specific locality. A number of submissions highlighted the importance of recognising the existence, and different needs, of ‘communities within communities’, particularly for groups reflecting protected characteristics.

Submissions came from a broad variety of communities of place. Events were held right across Scotland, in 29 of 32 local authority areas and representing the experiences of people living in cities, towns, neighbourhoods and villages.

Many different communities of interest or identity held community conversations and made submissions, from across four broad categories:

  • Identity: people who identified as a community around shared language, ethnicity, nationality, and citizenship status, and groups with shared experience around gender identity and sexuality.
  • Experience: groups with shared experiences of poverty, homelessness, living on benefits, recovering from addiction, living with physical and mental health conditions, disabled people.
  • Lifestage: groups with shared experience as young people, college and university students, parents, carers, and those who were retired.
  • Interests: groups with a shared interest in the environment and sustainability, culture and the arts, growing your own food.

Most of the discussions held by communities of interest or identity reflected the experience of marginalised groups; some involved people experiencing multiple forms of disadvantage or discrimination, often described as intersectionality.

The submissions describe a very broad range of experiences and views; different communities are starting from very different places in terms of their experiences of participating in local decision-making, and in their aspirations for greater involvement. The following describes the range of experiences.

People’s experiences of local decision-making

People described positive and negative experiences of their involvement in local decision-making. In a minority of cases, people had no experience of involvement in local decision-making. Responses describe the activity and energy of people getting involved in their communities across Scotland. However, the negative experiences of trying to be involved in decisions locally were more strongly and more frequently described.

The positive experiences ranged from taking part in, and helping to organise, activities and events in communities, to involvement with more formal community fora or organisations. The strength of community involvement and the positive impact of that involvement came through strongly in submissions. In broad terms, the submissions described three kinds of positive involvement:

  • Political action and protesting
  • Making their voices heard and influencing
  • Being directly involved and taking decisions

The negative experiences from communities of place, and of interest or identity, covered a broad range:

  • Poor communication
  • Tokenistic engagement
  • Lack of representation
  • Inability to effect change/inaction
  • Unwelcoming structures

There were a number of recurring themes about the kinds of barriers that prevent people from getting involved. These are summarised as:

  • Information: Lack of information about how to be involved, what opportunities there are to participate in decisions; where and how decisions and taken. Information not reaching marginalised communities about services available to support inclusion.
  • Complexity: The system is complicated – difficult to understand who is responsible for what, how things work and how to influence.
  • Accessibility: Transportation is non-existent or poor – and expensive – in areas. Most formal decision-making fora meet during working hours; the time available to participate can be a factor. Physical accessibility a key issue for many disabled people.
  • Lack of support for engagement: inadequate support for people to overcome range of practical barriers to involvement, and the range of barriers to inclusion experienced by marginalised and disadvantaged communities.
  • Style of participation: The language and behaviours of public authorities and the ways in which forums and meetings are organised restrict or discourage participation.

More community control over local decision-making

The clear evidence from the submissions is that people do want to have more control of decisions on issues that matter to them. This is particularly the case for control of decisions that are seen to directly affect communities, which should apply more locally. The vast majority of submissions expressed views that demonstrate a desire for a change to the status quo.

It was clear that what people understood by the term ‘control’ varied. Control was understood in terms of different kinds of participation in decision-making. For some, this was about being able to give their views as part of decisions being made, and for their input to lead to practical action that improved their community. Other submissions were clear it was about communities having the power and the resources to make decisions themselves. These views can be described broadly in terms of:

  • Influence – having a voice in, and an impact on, decision-making.
  • Transparency and accountability – public authorities being transparent about their decisions and communities being able to hold them to account for those decisions.
  • Authority – having the authority and resources to take decisions.

There were some responses that described concerns; people who felt that control should not be devolved. For some, this was because of a worry about the responsibility involved; or a concern about, or a lack of confidence in, the capacity of communities to hold that responsibility. Some submissions expressed concern about how to respond to local demands, and being held accountable.

Across the responses as a whole, communities expressed an appetite and ambition for greater involvement in, or control of, decisions on nearly every policy issue for which public authorities have responsibility. In general, it could be seen that the issues identified largely reflected the lived experience and concerns of the specific community of place and/or community of interest or identity.

For some communities, their responses related to very specific issues and concerns that affected the quality of their daily lives for example, issues of disadvantage and discrimination, negative aspects of their local physical and social environment, the quality of their public housing, their access to and use of specific public services. For other communities, their responses spoke more about decisions that would benefit the wider community, meet community wishes and needs, support the social and physical regeneration of their local area.

Overall, communities identified a range of changes to how they are involved in decisions that affect their community:

  • To be treated better by public authorities – through a change in culture and behaviour about involving communities in decisions.
  • To be better connected – both within communities (pooling knowledge and resources); and with decision-makers.
  • To be able to participate in decisions about their community; and, for some communities, that meant to have more local control over decisions, with the resources necessary for those decisions.
  • For decisions that affect their community to be based on knowledge and experience, and for those decisions to lead to action that improves their lives.

How do people describe their ‘local’ community

Many submissions described local in terms of a specific place, or geography, e.g. ‘my town’, ‘my village’, ‘the neighbourhood’. A distinction was often drawn between what were seen as the artificial boundaries around which different public services were organised, and what was described as ‘natural communities’ that made sense to people locally. Some described local in terms of size, or distance; others identified that communities can exist online.

Others identified that what was regarded as local for decision-making related to the specific issue. They identified that decisions might appropriately be taken at different geographic ‘levels’ (e.g. national/council area/community).

Many submissions associated the idea of ‘local’ more with social connections, and a shared sense of identity and belonging. Communities of interest/identity were likely to describe ‘local’ in similar terms, around shared experience and identity.

A few submissions suggested a specific definition of ‘local’ when thinking about community-level decision-making. For example, defined by an upper and lower limit on population size.

Changes needed to enable decision-making at the community level

Across the broad sweep of responses, many existing forms of decision-making were identified that, with changes, might play a role in bringing communities closer to, or involved in local decision-making. Most often mentioned were community councils, but also community development trusts, community-based housing associations and forums/partnerships that brought together other local community organisations. There was a common view that any new arrangements should reflect local circumstances; that ‘one size does not fit all’.

There were a range of views and experiences of community councils described in responses. Many views on community councils were supportive of, and ambitious for, their potential to take on more local powers, with changes. Others, fewer in number, held strongly negative views of community councils and did not think they should take on local decision-making. They were regarded as unrepresentative, ineffective and reactive, self-interested and ‘cliquey’.

Other examples of existing decision-making variously identified included: advisory groups, locality planning groups, community planning partnerships, school boards and parent councils, the Scottish rural and youth parliaments, participatory budgeting arrangements, local third sector organisations, other local community forums.

Responses also described a range of changes required to make community-level decision-making a reality covering the following themes:

  • Supporting people to participate
  • Building participation into the system
  • Changing the culture and behaviours of public authorities towards community participation

People described a range of positive values they want to see expressed in the ways in which communities are enabled to participate by public authorities. These values describe:

  • How public authorities should treat communities
  • How communities and public authorities should work together
  • New ways of working in partnership that deliver practical actions to improve outcomes for communities

Some community organisations, with experience of the current system of decision-making, described possible new structures for community decision-making. For some this was described as requiring a new tier of democracy; but others were explicitly opposed to such a development. Many identified that any power to take decisions required resources in order to deliver those decisions.

A few organisations provided worked up proposals of new forms of local decision-making at the community level and described how they could be constituted, their accountability, and how they could fit into the existing system of decision-making.

From the submissions, a range of measures can be identified that communities feel would help enable better community involvement in, or control over, decisions.

  • Knowledge and education about people’s rights and responsibilities as citizens, information about how (and which) public authorities take decisions that affect their communities, and information about how they can get involved in decisions.
  • Practical training and organisational development for community groups and organisations to enable them to take on more responsibility.
  • Greater influence over decisions made by public authorities and the means to hold those authorities better to account for those decisions.
  • Community participation in/membership of existing decision-making institutions/structures (e.g. area communities, local community planning groups).
  • New structures of community governance: either changing the functions and/authority of existing community organisations such as community councils, or development trusts, or community-run housing associations; or designing completely new structures at the community level.


Email: jen.swan@gov.scot

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