Institutionalising Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Working Group: report

Recommends how the Scottish Government's ambition for change can be delivered to make Scotland’s democracy more participative and inclusive, and proposes next steps as it incorporates processes for participatory and deliberative democracy into the democratic system.


The Working Group believes Scotland can be the first country in the UK and one of the first in the world to embed participatory and deliberative democracy into its decision-making, moving from one-off uses of deliberative processes to the routine use of processes that involve people in the decisions affecting their lives. In time, participatory and deliberative democracy should become an expectation not just for the Scottish Government, but for public services, local government and the communities they serve.

In recent years, Scotland has taken a number of positive steps to involve people in decision making. To date, two national Citizens' Assemblies have been held and the Scottish Government has now committed to participatory and deliberative democratic innovations, including a person-centred Covid Recovery strategy[5], annual Citizens' Assemblies[6], Participatory Budgeting[7], and Citizens' Assemblies for children and young people[8]. This builds on ongoing commitments to community empowerment, participatory budgeting, the use of mini-publics, and the Scottish Approach to Service Design. These innovations and their benefits can be seen in the work of the Scottish Parliament[9], Scottish Government and innovative Local Authorities and public bodies, for example Audit Scotland's principles for community empowerment[10].

In part, this Working Group was established to respond to the very clear message from our first Citizens' Assembly on the Future of Scotland that there should be a greater use of participation and deliberation across Scotland, including - but not limited to - Citizens' Assemblies. The political commitment and leadership to establish the two national Citizens' Assemblies has provided significant learning and has demonstrated the value of creating constructive public discourse in which it is possible to reach informed conclusions on complex and value-laden topics. There is now a broad spectrum of interest within the Scottish Parliament in the value of such innovations, and clear leadership from the Scottish Government, including through the Co-Operation Agreement with the Scottish Green Party.

What is the issue and what needs to change?

We live in a globalised world with societal and environmental issues that cannot be solved by governments alone. The experience of the last two years of a global pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated inequalities in our society, and has emphasised the importance of trust in government. The Working Group welcomes the Scottish Government's Covid Recovery Strategy, its commitment to focusing on tackling inequalities, and to doing so with the people who are impacted to build a better and fairer place. In the face of these challenges, there can too often be a tendency to rely on less effective or less inclusive modes of public engagement and participation, for example written consultations. The Scottish Government now needs to take a more inclusive, creative and ambitious approach.

For effective participation to support that work, there is a need to consider how to deliver commitments in a meaningful and sustainable way. Routinely using participatory and deliberative processes requires a supporting infrastructure and changed ways of working. A step change is needed if these are to be sufficient and focused.

Involving people in decision making can be a profound and rewarding experience for both the commissioners and the participants. Done well, it can help deliver improved outcomes and better policy, and can help fulfil the Government's commitments to equalities and human rights. It can also help counteract polarisation and disinformation - moving us away from adversarial debate to an approach which builds consensus, bridges divides and takes difficult decisions on complex issues. Done badly, it can undermine equalities and human rights, and damage trust in government.

Without changing the current ways of resourcing, designing and undertaking participatiory and deliberative work, we risk doing this badly.

The changes recommended in this report will also make it more likely that the people furthest away from power and decision making will be included in participation. Proactively applying the values, principles and standards recommended will lead to more inclusive practice and greater involvement of marginalised communities. Doing this may require different methods and approaches, but listening to marginalised voices means that policies can meet the fullest range of needs of the people of Scotland and can improve outcomes for everyone.

Participation, democratic innovations, and Citizens' Assemblies

The latter part of this report responds to the Government's commitments to Citizens' Assemblies. As a process Citizens' Assemblies offer great potential to involve people in taking big decisions that affect Scotland as a nation, and the introduction of their routine use creates a new and innovative part of our democratic infrastructure. But we also recognise that Citizens' Assemblies are not the answer to every problem. They require significant time and resource commitment, and are likely to remain a process to be used judiciously and with a view to strategic decision-making on complex issues.

The benefits of democratic innovation go well beyond one type of process and will be more effectively delivered if this work takes place in a system that values and uses participation as a core part of its operation. The Working Group identifies that it is a priority to make routine use of smaller-scale methods of participation across the system in Scotland. It is in smaller-scale and local processes that shifts in the way decisions are made can reach larger numbers of people who are currently unheard, and can have the greatest impacts. While it is not for this report to detail how that can be achieved, in our recommendations we have made links to broader government commitments to community empowerment, local governance and rights-based working that can embed participation, and that will be improved by modelling high quality participation in their development.

We also recognise that public participation will not be suitable for or resolve every issue, and will be one of many evidence sources used to make decisions. In these situations, credibility and trust can be maintained by being open and transparent about how decisions are made. Building accountability mechanisms throughout all parts of the system will be key to this.

Skills, infrastructure and resources

In order to deliver participation across the system, skills, infrastructure and resources are needed within and beyond government. Building a community of practice with external capacity and networks will ensure participation has fairness and equalities at its core. New processes also require institutional infrastructure that can provide clear governance, accountable independence and measurable impact on outcomes for the investment made. This will take time, investment and commitment to achieve.

The development of national infrastructure, bodies, skills, programmes and resources will need investment to ensure that participation is valued and supported at all levels, and that communities can lead on participation rather than relying on national or local government to raise the issues they see as important. Local government will play a vital role in supporting new participatory forms of governance and decision-making at the local level, providing communities with opportunities to be involved in shaping the places they live in. This could include responding to local governance challenges led by communities themselves, and considering options for skilled support for communities to engage with these processes, especially those experiencing exclusion and the worst impacts of social and economic inequalities. This will take time and a collaborative approach to achieve - there is a need for collective buy-in and agreement across different parts of the system, as well as clear guidance for when and how participation happens. To do this, we can build on the Scottish Government's Participation Framework, National Standards for Community Engagement, and the Scottish Approach to Service Design. In addition this report recommends common values, principles, standards for participatory work across Scotland.

Without these things, there is a risk that participation is low quality, not properly considered, or favours ill-suited options or methods on the basis of low cost or ease. Too often, approaches like this do not extend participation beyond 'already engaged' people, and do not produce the insight and outcomes required. Such participation would be unsuccessful, would fail to meet public expectations, and would ultimately damage trust in government.



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