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August 27, 2008

Scottish Minister speaks about local democracy

In a recent article about Community Empowerment, Bruce Crawford, a Government Minister, says ‘‘our parliament is founded on principle of participation, openness and accountability. We are committed to putting those founding principles back at the heart of democracy’’. But it’s still difficult to know how serious this SNP administration is about democratic renewal.

Public Servant Scotland Journal (Maureen Ferrier)

Almost a year ago, the Scottish government launched a “national conversation” on Scotland’s future governance, based around the paper Choosing Scotland’s Future and its three key questions on extending the Scottish Parliament’s powers – including independence.

The government’s wish to hear what the people have to say itself demonstrates a desire to widen the decision-making process.

Minister for Parliamentary Business Bruce Crawford says: “Scotland has a strong civil society, which has a tradition of engaging with government at all levels. Our parliament is founded firmly on principles of participation, openness and accountability to the people of Scotland. We are committed to putting those founding principles back at the heart of democracy.

“But while traditional forms of engagement – such as voting – have become less popular, it is clear that there remains a strong commitment to get involved in other initiatives which improve social cohesion. The biggest challenge for political leaders is how to harness that energy.

“In my view, both government and parliament should be working to enable and encourage community activity and the work done by civil society organisations. That means assisting individuals and organisations to express their views effectively and supporting their efforts so that they can engage successfully with the formal structures of government and parliament.”

But for all that we hear much of involving communities in decision-making, do the communities and the individuals who make up those communities actually want to be involved? Might the tiers of democracy – community councils, local authorities, Scottish Parliament, Westminster Parliament, European Parliament, combined with a plethora of confusing voting systems – be more than enough for most people? Indeed, can the community empowerment agenda be fulfilled when so few people vote in any of those elections?

Community empowerment and consultation runs the risk of involving the “usual suspects” while the majority of the population remains uninvolved and silent or, worse, silenced.

Crawford argues that there is a need to change how the population’s voice is heard.

“Traditional consultation methods are not always sufficient,” he says. “That is why we took a fresh approach to our national conversation on Scotland’s constitutional future. We have had more than 350,000 hits on the national conversation themed web-pages, nearly 9,000 downloads of the white paper and more than 3,500 comments posted on the blog – a success by any measurement.

“The second phase is focused on extensive engagement with Scotland’s civic institutions. We have the chance to shape the future of the nation and it is important that civic Scotland plays a central role.”

So far, the national conversation has cost Scottish taxpayers around £98,000, with a further £87,000 for targeting the third sector and young people.

MSP George Foulkes describes the national conversation as a fraud, materially different from other government consultations with no requirement for participants to formally identify themselves.

“It is encouraging those people who are the regular contributors to newspaper websites or radio phone-ins, which is not at all a representative sample of the population,” he says.

But Foulkes praises other initiatives, describing consultation as an important part of the democratic process: “Consultation should not be under-valued. While it is elected representatives who make the decisions and are accountable, it is important to have mechanisms for people to become involved, to understand how government works and to understand the pressures that elected representatives are under so they can exercise their vote effectively.”

The original effort at involvement, community planning, was a practical effort aimed at involving communities – both of place and of interest – in the planning process, but it became inextricably linked with best value, sometimes to the detriment of the community aspect.

Audit Scotland has reported that best value has been largely achieved across Scotland, but that while the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), remain committed to the community planning agenda, it is still a long way from fulfilment.

COSLA says the development of single outcome agreements will reinvigorate community planning. Community well-being and safety spokesman councillor Harry McGuigan says: “Clearly another part of this process is how we engage with our communities in setting our priorities for improvement and reporting progress back to them.

“We will be building on experience across councils in engaging with communities and promoting examples of best practice.”

SOLACE’s Sue Bruce also underlines the importance of the agreements: “They will allow councils to participate in a more flexible framework with government thus allowing us to be more flexible in meeting community needs. They also put councils at the heart of what communities want and allow us to work in a bottom-up direction.”

Local People Leading, an alliance campaigning for a strong and independent community sector in Scotland, says community empowerment is vital. One of its key priorities is to “invest communities with greater control over decision-making and responsibility for matters which shape local quality of life”.

But Sue Bruce recognises this is an uphill struggle. Councils are working to encourage people who do not usually participate, but, she adds: “If you can find a solution to that, it would be a magic moment.”