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August 12, 2015

TSIs and community planning

When the Scottish Government conflated the country’s CVSs and Volunteer Centres into 32 Third Sector Interfaces (TSIs) – one for each local authority area – it’s fair to say there wasn’t unanimous support for the idea. The TSIs were also told that they were the third sector seat at the Community Planning Partnership table. Some have managed this well, while others still struggle to be heard. No doubt reflecting on their collective experience to date, a group of TSIs came together last year to consider a way forward. The report, just out, is a worthwhile read.


In December 2014, TSI representatives gathered for a two-day Forum to review evidence and deliberate on the future of Community Planning (CP). They started by outlining broad ideas, values and principles to guide their deliberations, and agreed that the overarching aim is to achieve ‘better outcomes, better lives’, with particular focus on tackling inequalities. Forum participants then mapped problems and barriers that stand in the way. On the basis of that work, they then generated 17 Vision Statements around 4 themes:

 • Developing a new role for CP in local democracy

• Turning CP into a space for collaborative and participative decision-making

• Improving how CP works

• Developing a new role for the third sector in CP

The Vision outlined in this document offers a bold approach for reimagining CP as an empowered space capable of developing better services and solving local problems through policy innovation. This is a collective Vision for ‘Democratic Community Planning’.

Towards Democratic Community Planning

The TSIs’ representatives involved in creating this Vision did not only focus on the role of the third sector. Instead, they chose to take a broader perspective to stimulate debate on the future of CP in the context of local governance in Scotland. Their ideas and proposals stem from a third sector perspective, but are clearly connected to current strategic thinking for reform across public services.

Accordingly, the Vision Statements echo, and build on, key recommendations and policy frameworks from various sources, including the Christie Commission, the Community Empowerment Bill, the Early Years Collaborative, the Public Bodies (Joint Working) Act, the Scottish Government and COSLA’s Statement of Ambition, reports from Audit Scotland, and the COSLA Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy.

This Vision is, therefore, broadly in line with the direction of travel currently supported by a broad range of policy actors in Scotland. However, it offers a bolder approach to invigorating CP by transforming it into a space for collaborative and participative policy making.

The Forum was clear that the overarching aim should be to achieve ‘better outcomes, better lives’, and that tackling inequalities should be central to this agenda. Consequently, participants argued that CPPs ‘must become true decision making bodies’ capable of ‘demonstrating impact’, instead of being ‘secondary arenas’ with limited capacity to make a difference. The Forum put it this way: ‘If CPPs can demonstrate that they are where power and resource sit, and shows that involvement influences real decision making, then it encourages community engagement and participation’.

Nonetheless, it was recognised that reimagining CPPs as integral to local democracy presents clear challenges: ‘How do we balance representative democracy and community-led decision making?’ It will be necessary to further develop the role of local elected representatives in CP, and work out transparent and accountable mechanisms to connect different decision making roles and structures.

The Forum insisted that CP must be ‘community focussed and enabling’, and that ‘service design and delivery must be driven by communities’. This means that ‘public bodies should share budgets based on what works for communities’. There was a recognition that ‘in some areas there is already a move towards sharing resources organically’, but also that ‘this doesn’t happen everywhere, and this is where legislation is important to force change where it’s becoming stuck’. Participants also highlighted that third sector organisations can lead by example by exploring new ways of sharing resources for the benefit of communities.

Therefore, the Forum reflected on the work that the third sector must do to play a prominent role in this new CP. Participants were self-critical about the need for TSIs’ development in order to be both: participative (capable of engaging the diversity of voices within the third sector) and influential (capable of representing the third sector on the basis of that participation). They clearly recognised that for TSIs to play a more legitimate role in CP, they must get a clearer mandate from their sector –and this would require TSIs to also become spaces for participation for 22 the sector. This does not mean that the TSIs are a substitute for effective community participation, which must collectively characterise the new approach to CP proposed.

 All in all, implementing this Vision would entail substantial reform of CP, local government and public services. This represents an ambitious agenda that deserves considered deliberation. There are numerous financial and administrative implications to this direction of travel, but inaction will also have its costs. The Forum thus called for radical reform, but following a cautious approach: ‘All of these actions should be proportionate, and bureaucracy should not block the flow of action’.

 Arguably, this level of ambition is well justified if CP is to play a central role in developing better policies and services, tackling inequalities and solving local problems. This Vision offers a way of rethinking CPPs that goes beyond managerial approaches to public services, and seeks to put forward the notion of ‘Democratic Community Planning’. The Forum delegates hope that these initial ideas can stimulate debate about what CP may achieve by becoming a catalyser for a more vibrant local democracy.