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 6: What needs to change to support and enable decision-making at the community level?

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

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?

Overall, responses described a broad array of changes that different communities chose to highlight as central to improving their ability to be involved in or be responsible for decisions that affected them.

Communities that did have experience of engagement and involvement with public authorities and decision-making structures were able to draw on that experience and describe a broad range of changes that could be made to existing forms of decision-making. A few submissions from specific organisations provided worked up proposals of new forms of local decision-making at the community level.

Communities of interest and identity that lacked knowledge and experience of involvement in their community and with decision-making bodies were not able to describe how changes might be made to forms of decision-making.

The variety of contributions are described in greater detail in the rest of this section.

Existing forms of decision-making

Across the broad sweep of responses, many existing forms of decision-making were identified that might play a role in bringing communities closer to, or involved in local decision-making. But that changes were required in order to make that a reality.

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 responses on community councils were supportive of, and ambitious for, their potential to take on more local powers, with changes. These highlighted their statutory basis and that they are the only community-level organisation requiring democratic election, but it was felt community councils had not been properly resourced, supported and empowered. A range of issues were identified to be resolved including that councils are not standardly representative of the diversity of their community, and in practice many community councillors are not formally elected. Some felt a new form or structure of community councils was needed. Commonly, those hopeful about community councils felt that more power and resources would: motivate more diverse and higher quality involvement; allow councils to be more proactive for the community; and that training and support would also help the effectiveness of councillors. As part of these reflections, comparisons were made with the role, status and set-up of English parish councils, which was felt to allow them a more effective role.

Others, fewer in number, held strongly negative views or experiences 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 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 described a range of changes identified as necessary enablers for community-level decision-making.
They covered the following themes:

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

Supporting people to participate

Many responses, particularly from those communities who described being very distant from decision-making, highlighted the importance of very basic knowledge and information to support participation. This covered knowledge of the rights and responsibilities as individual citizens, the system of democracy in Scotland, information about which public authorities were responsible for decisions on which issues, information about the ways in which citizens and communities were able to be involved in and influence decisions that affect them.

Responses pointed to the importance variously of education at school and further or higher education to provide foundational knowledge about citizenship and democracy. Also identified was more practical and localised activity to provide information and raise awareness about how to get involved in decisions that affect different communities. This was also raised in relation to measures that would particularly encourage and support the greater involvement of young people.

More specific skills and capacity building activity was also highlighted. This tended to focus on more practical aspects for community groups and organisations, providing knowledge and information, and training, about how to operate as formal organisations (such as governance and accountability, financial, administrative skills), and take on more responsibility.

Some responses also highlighted the contribution of specific roles, positions that could play a significant part in supporting people to participate. This covered people in communities playing a leadership role as a ‘champion’ for the community, engagement and participation practitioners (working in public authorities or third and community sector); local people training to develop skills to help support and encourage other community members.

The use of technology was a strong theme as an additional method that could better support people to participate. The use of social media, smart phone applications, and online were described variously as means to enable: voting online; better communication and feedback from public authorities, such as live-streaming of meetings; involvement of people who are unable to attend in person, getting community views and opinions, such as through online surveys.

Building participation into the existing system

Some responses highlighted changes that could be made to existing ways citizens and communities could participate in decision-making. These could be further encouraged, used more widely, or strengthened. This included:

  • Better consultation: genuine, effective, inclusive
  • More use of charrettes
  • Local development plans (or community plans)
  • Locality planning
  • Community action planning
  • Participation requests
  • Participatory Budgeting
  • Place standard

Other suggestions focused on how communities could be better involved in existing forums, groups and decision-making structures such as:

  • Access panels – giving local statutory consultee status for disability groups
  • Advisory Groups to existing decision-making structures
  • Area partnerships – giving equity for community representatives
  • Community representation on councils
  • Collaborative, partnership working between communities and local public authorities
  • Creation of partnership groups to include council and local people
  • Representation of local people in quasi-government bodies
  • Short-life working groups
  • Nurturing and supporting greater involvement from young people

Changing the culture and behaviours of public authorities towards community participation

Responses identified a range of changes to the cultures and behaviours of public authorities in the way in which they treated communities trying to get involved in decision-making. This focused particularly on a change in culture to one that trusted and respected the contribution of communities, achieved a sense of parity of esteem, and which took practical steps to apply inclusive approaches to support diversity.

Across the submissions, a range of positive values were described that people wanted to see expressed in the way 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

These values are set out in the table below.

Values to guide our democratic system and community participation

How communities should be treated by public authorities:

  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Parity of system
  • Openness
  • Valued
  • Empowered
  • Inclusion

How communities and public authorities should work together:

  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation
  • Communication
  • Listening
  • Deliberative
  • Equality
  • Negotiation
  • Solidarity

New ways of working to improve outcomes for communities:

  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Action-oriented
  • Risk-taking
  • Vision and ambition
  • Vibrant

New forms of decision-making

Some community organisations, with knowledge and experience of the current system of decision-making, described possible new structures or mechanisms 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 resource and/or budget in order to deliver those decisions. Suggestions included: using mini-publics: citizens’ assemblies or juries; a community charter; community deals (like city deals).

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.

Across the submissions as a whole, a range of measures were variously 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/or 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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