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.

Section 3: What are people’s experiences of local decision-making?

People described many different experiences of local decision-making, both positive and negative. In a minority of cases, people had no experience of involvement in decision-making. There were many positive experiences described. These were often accompanied by frustrations people had about the system and the difficulties in effecting change.

This section describes what people said in response to the DM question:

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

Positive experiences of being involved

People described being active in their communities in many different ways. This ranged from taking part in social activities with their community to involvement with more formal community fora or organisations (e.g. community councils, development trusts, residents associations, parents councils).

The strength of community involvement and the impact of that involvement came through very strongly in submissions. The social connection and sense of shared purpose and identity that was associated with community activity, and the well-being that came from that, was frequently mentioned. The following provide examples of how this was expressed:

“The youth forum provides a positive space to have your voice heard within the community. Being part of youth forum encourages you to be more confident and it helps you feel valued within your local community.” (local youth forum)

“This group has influence in the community to help support women and their families.” (women’s group)

The following gives a flavour of the many types of experiences people described through DM. In broad terms, they described three kinds of involvement:

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

Political action and protesting

Very many submissions described people’s formal involvement in democracy in Scotland, describing voting in elections and also in the Scottish independence referendum.

Submissions described people getting involved in one-off demonstrations and protests; for example participating in a protest against racism.

The experience of more sustained involvement in issues was also described, such as campaigning for marginalised or disadvantaged groups; or protesting about a local issue of concern, examples included campaigning for asylum seekers’ rights and opposing the closure of a local hospital.

Making voices heard and influencing

Submissions described how people sought to make their voices heard in local decision-making. People described being involved in local consultations; for example, having a say in how a local park was developed and managed.

Others described positive involvement in more formal exercises organised to hear the views of the community, for example a Poverty Commission and a local charrette:

“Our voices were heard and reflected in the East Lothian Poverty Commission”

The experience of taking part in participatory budgeting exercises was frequently mentioned as a positive example of being involved. This covered city-wide exercises like ‘Dundee Decides’, and those that were highly local, such as ‘Bucks for Buckie’.

There was a strong sense that people welcomed and valued the opportunity to contribute their view on local issues. People particularly recalled that experience positively when they felt listened to and that their opinion had influenced decisions.

Being directly involved and taking decisions

Some people described their experience of being a formal representative in a variety of forums; for example, parent council of local school, as a community councillor, in a school youth forum:

“Being involved in school decisions made me feel empowered”

There were many descriptions of the positive impact people felt through getting involved in their community as a volunteer, participating in local activities, regularly with organised groups, taking part in fundraising. This covered a range of local community groups such as playgroups and youth clubs, local faith organisations, food banks.

A very practical example of local involvement, that reflects the connection within communities referred to above, is evident from a community conversation:

“Local events organised by volunteers were offered as an example of effective local planning and decision-making. Events included the Christmas lights and a carnival both of which brought people in the community together.”

Some responses described the importance of local groups, largely of communities of interest and identity, acting as a source of networking and support for people with shared experiences, for example adult learners and a women’s group:

“Great experiences of women coming together locally”.

Negative experiences of being involved

Responses to DM described much activity and energy in communities across Scotland. However, the negative experiences of trying to be involved in decisions locally were more strongly and more frequently described.

Some people from specific communities of interest and identity described finding it difficult to get involved in decisions, or having no experience of involvement at all. For example, some asylum seekers, EU citizens, foreign language groups, and some people from different ethnic minority groups described experiences of being detached from the wider community and formal decision-making organisations and forums. They did not know about local groups or understand whether and how they could get involved.

There were also descriptions of the difficulties of getting involved. For disabled people this tended to focus on issues around transport and physical access, and cultures and behaviours that made their involvement difficult: e.g. a lack of empathy and understanding about the specific needs of disabled people, not being listened to; to more direct explicit discrimination. People from disabled groups frequently described their sense of loneliness and isolation within their community of place. Local groups of disabled people and disabled people’s organisations provided an important source of support and connection.

The negative experiences of being involved in local decisions from communities of place and of interest covered a broad range:

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

Tokenistic engagement

Many submissions, and respondents in the regional events, described in strongly negative terms, opportunities to have involvement in decisions that were regarded as being little more than tokenistic. These experiences stemmed from occasions where decisions were taken in the face of community opinion that opposed them, or where it was perceived that decisions had already been made before consulting the community.

Submissions described people’s very negative experiences of taking part in consultations: this involved not feeling listened to, that their opinions had been ignored and had had no impact on decisions. These experiences led to frustration, disenchantment and cynicism. Efforts to consult communities by public authorities were often perceived to be a ‘tick-box exercise’; that they were not effectively planned and organised, and undertaken without real effort or commitment. It was seen more often than not as about satisfying a procedural requirement to consult rather than a genuine attempt to listen to communities.

Poor communication

Poor communication from public authorities about the decisions they took was mentioned frequently in responses. People wanted to know what had happened after a consultation but complained that they did not receive any feedback explaining what had been heard from communities and what had been done as a result.

These experiences contributed to a sense of being ignored and not being informed (often perceived as deliberately) of what decisions had been taken and why. For example, the experience of using recent community empowerment legislation to make participation requests but having those requests refused, with no reasons given.

The following extract describes an example of people with experience of involvement and a belief in their own capacity to make a contribution. It is from a community conversation hosted by a development trust:

“Everyone agreed they had been involved in decision-making locally to some degree, so there was already a level of built capacity within our communities. However, there was universal frustration that many decisions were taken remotely from the community, by people who often didn’t know all the issues, and very often didn’t communicate the outcomes of decisions either. So the system was far from right, as it stands.”

It also highlights a strong sense that this failure in communication, and listening, by public authorities, meant decisions did not benefit from the knowledge and experience that existed in communities.

Unwelcoming structures

Public authorities, and councils in particular, were described as being difficult to navigate and intimidating. Despite recognised efforts to involve communities, structures were experienced as often unwelcoming. Along with the physical distance from communities, people talked in negative terms about the impact of bureaucracy and the complexity of public service system. As an example, a submission from a community conversation commented about designing such a system ‘from scratch’:

“it would not look this way and be populated with such a complex and impenetrable network of organisations.”

As a further illustration, a submission from a community conversation commented about council partnerships and forums:

“[they] have not been useful, being stuck in structures where citizens were not openly encouraged to debate and were subject to rules for participating in the meeting that were so formal they were not effective.”

In some of the regional events, people described attending formal meetings of local decision-making bodies (e.g. council or community planning) held in public but not being allowed to participate, or only as an exception. They were told this was because they were ‘meetings held in public’ not ‘public meetings’. Such experiences of the application of formal rules of procedure were seen as symptomatic of structures and cultures that did not support, value or encourage community involvement.

Lack of representation

Many submissions, and participants at the regional events, identified the lack of opportunity for communities to have a place on the range of decision-making bodies and local forums. This was a particular concern for decisions about the issues that directly affected different communities, as this example illustrates:

“We have no disabled people’s participation at a planning or strategic level shaping the delivery of health and social care”

Inability to effect change/inaction

Submissions described communities’ particular frustration at the experience of raising concerns about local problems or particular needs, or making complaints, which appeared to be ignored by local bodies. Communities were looking for authorities not only to display that they were listening but to act.

For some people, these were very immediate issues to do with problems with their housing, or about the state of their local environment such as litter, graffiti and dog fouling. It was clear that these had an impact on the quality of life of communities. People understood that the impact of funding reductions contributed to these issues, but did not explain the lack of improvements they experienced, nor the failure to communicate with communities about them.

A common theme was the distance between the decision makers and the local community. This was expressed as frustration about decisions made by public bodies perceived as lacking the knowledge and understanding of local experience and concerns. For some communities, particularly in rural areas, this was also expressed in terms of the physical distance of communities from where decision-makers were located.

People spoke about decisions being made without an understanding of the local community, and of decisions having a bias in favour of a particular geographic area. In one example, council officers no longer had a budget to travel to local communities and therefore could not learn directly from citizens about local concerns.

Many submissions commented on the role of community councils, recognising their statutory position, but the lack of power they have to effect change. Views expressed about the potential of community councils and other community organisations to take on new powers over local decision-making are discussed in section five.

Barriers to participation

In responding to the question about local decision-making, there were a number of recurring themes about the kinds of barriers that prevent people from getting involved. These are summarised in the table below:

Category Description
Information Lack of information about how to be involved, what opportunities there are to participate; where and how decisions are taken. Information not reaching marginalised communities about services available to support inclusion.
Complexity System 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 a range of barriers to involvement: practical barriers such as caring and other family responsibilities; 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.


Email: jen.swan@gov.scot

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