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April 13, 2021

International lessons about local democracy

Whenever the subject of Scotland’s uniquely ‘non-local’ system of local government comes up for discussion, empirical comparisons are usually made with our European neighbours and they never read well. Geographically, the average size of a Scottish local authority is 50 times larger than the European average. In Scotland, one councillor exists for every 4453 citizens, whilst for similar population sized Denmark (2216) and Norway (572). While local governance cannot be imported wholesale from another country, we can however adapt our systems by learning from international experience. This new research by Scottish Government should be invaluable.

Scottish Government

The aim of the international review –Full report

This review is international in scope; it draws on examples not just from Europe but also from North and South America and Australasia. It takes a predominantly qualitative approach to produce in-depth case studies which offer a rich profile of local governance in each instance. It looks not simply at governance structures but at building an understanding of local governance as a system, recognising that the operation of governance involves inter-connections and dependencies vertically between levels of government and horizontally between similar local governance structures. And the review looks also at participative democracy; whether and how citizens can participate in local governance: the means and mechanisms available to them to influence or take part in local decision-making beyond voting in elections.

The review considers the case studies comparatively, to identify where there are common issues and challenges and patterns in the ways in which systems are designed and function, and where systems differ or diverge. Profiles of each case study describe the system of democratic and public service governance, including the different spheres of government and their functions, and mechanisms for public participation and offer an appraisal of each country’s system of governance. The results of this review complement and add to the picture provided by the reports listed in the previous section.

The review does not identify an ‘ideal type’ of local governance that can be simply transferred and applied to Scotland. Instead, the review contributes to a deeper knowledge and a richer understanding of different local governance systems. In that way, it aims to act as resource for learning and reflection that can inform ongoing discussions about governance and democracy in Scotland.

It is difficult to capture the complexities of governance in a simple definition. The literature on governance proposes several definitions, but most rest on three dimensions: power/authority, decision-making and accountability. The Institute of Governance working definition of governance reflects these dimensions: governance determines who has power, who makes decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered.[1]