Snook were commissioned by the Scottish Government in September 2019 to explore Commitment 4 of the Open Government National Action Plan: improving citizens' access to accountability of public services. Through public engagement activities and events with public sector stakeholders, this piece of work identified the common journeys through, and barriers to, accessing accountability in Scotland. While 16 key themes emerged from the research, they were grouped within the following four categories, which represent areas that require attention:
1. A lack of transparency
A general lack of transparency of information, behind the scenes processing, process expectations, and decision-making created key barriers to access of accountability. The public were unable to understand why public decisions had been made, which led to a lack of trust in public services and bodies. Often, people did not receive replies when making accountability requests, and were unable to understand how their enquiries were being processed. When accountability processes ended, they were unaware if and how their input had contributed towards intended change.
2. Disempowerment of users and staff
Disempowerment of the public and service delivery staff was caused by a lack of support from the public sector to participate in accountability processes. Existing accountability processes reduced the ability for staff and users to engage at a human-level and participate in active listening. Past negative experiences of accountability and public consultation had left citizens feeling unsupported to participate.
3. A lack of accessibility
Poor access to advocacy and support created practical barriers to participation in accountability. Communication methods between users and services often did not meet the needs of the public and left them feeling excluded from accountability processes and uncared for by public bodies.
4. Cultures of opposition
The public reported a general attitude of opposition across the public sector. They believed that an 'us vs them' mentality existed, which resulted in feedback from the public being disregarded and viewed as inconvenient instead of valuable. The public were often not involved in solution-finding and did not trust public bodies to use their input to make positive change.
Key barriers and user needs within the categorised themes is further explored in this report.
Opportunities for improvements, including existing resources and examples of best practice have also been summarised. In response, three recommendations have been proposed, each one producing outcomes and findings that inform the next. As such, it is suggested that they be undertaken in concurrence:
1a. Investigating the barriers and opportunities to support access to accountability within service delivery, with a focus on practical 'on the ground' staff needs.
Many national policies, guidance, and standards that support public access to accountability already exist, and access to accountability processes remains dependant on the practices of 'on the ground' service delivery staff. This review would investigate the barriers that staff face in supporting citizens to access accountability and delivering accountability processes that meet public needs.
1b. A review of current solutions and examples of good practice that support access to accountability in Scotland.
Examples of good practice and access exist across Scotland, with a lack of consistency. By taking an asset-based approach to solution development, existing pockets of success in Scotland could be translated into case studies to support national learning and development in relation to accountability. This piece of work would review the qualities of these successful examples and apply these learnings to the barriers that operational service delivery staff face, as identified in recommendation 1a, to identify asset-based opportunities.
2. The formation of a People's Panel and Community of Practice to develop pilot "tests of change".
The opportunities in response to the themes as outlined in this report, and the findings from recommendations 1a and 1b, could be developed into pilot solutions and tested. It is recommended that this process of testing and development should be undertaken by a People's Panel, who would represent the residents of Scotland, and a Community of Practice, who would represent public sector stakeholders and decision-makers. The formation of these working groups could contribute to a longer term commitment to trust building and continuous learning and development in relation to accountability.