Event Report: #PostIndyRef: The Future of Local Democracy
The Democratic Society, by Alistair Stoddart
On a snowy evening in mid-January the Scottish Youth Theatre in Glasgow was packed for a discussion on the future of Scottish local democracy and community participation in decision making.
Our starting point was last summer’s report by the independent Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. The Commission, chaired by Cllr David O’Neill from North Ayrshire, had come up with seven principles and a number of recommendations. The most important was that local government as a system needed fundamental reform. They called for a review of the structure and functions of local government, to bring about a more participative and involving democracy that started from the bottom. David O’Neill was joined by Louise Macdonald, Chief Executive of Young Scot and Member of the Commission; and Sarah Drummond, Managing Director of Snook and founder of Dearest Scotland. Each of the panel provided opening statements reflecting on the report and their hopes for the future of local democracy in Scotland.
David focused on the need to move away from centralisation, noting that “political participation has declined over the last fifty years, as power has moved to the centre.” He also stressed that centralisation has not worked to tackle inequality in Scotland. He believes that more devolution should not stop at Holyrood and should extend past local authorities and directly into communities. His key message was that it should be “communities that empower governments, not governments that empower people” and that the Commission’s report suggested ways to create a stronger and more involving local democracy.
Louise indicated that it is was vital for local decision making to move beyond mere consultation and towards co-production and co-creation of local policies and services; with local authorities working closely with local communities. However, she stressed that such a shift would not be straight forward, and that Councils should embrace the “messy” side of engagement and decision making. This is because “one-size-fits-all government” can no longer work at a local level. She also commented on the amount young people have done in relation to community and democratic engagement, stating that “young people can transform their communities when they are allowed to do so.”
Sarah, spoke of the need to rethink “the design and aesthetics of democracy” and think about how people currently interact with their communities and local authorities and make the necessary changes to improve local decision making. She also spoke of the benefits of co-production and the need to create “shared spaces” for democratic decisions to be made. She also demanded a cultural shift in terms of how power is distributed locally: moving from Councils exercising power over people, to sharing power with people. She described the report as having plenty of ideas to build on and stressed the need to experiment with different methods of participation to create a stronger local democracy in Scotland. She quoted Oliver Escobar by stating that “democracy is always in the making” and that communities should shape the future of democracy together.
A passionate and varied discussion then took place which covered issues such as: hidden power; accessibility; the scale of the challenge ahead; and various other areas where the report’s findings could be tested. In this atmosphere, it was no surprise that we managed to fill two hours of discussion, with plenty of hands still raised for the last round of questions. The main points made in this discussion were that:
Conversation is important, but we also need action. There has been a lot of talk, particularly in Scotland, about new democracy and localism – but now there needs to be concentrated action, going beyond a few pioneering examples.
We need to go beyond “Us and Them” and move from hierarchies to networks. People can’t be given power, it can only be returned to them. Councils should think of ways in which they can create networks of people and organisations around issues, without worrying about administrative or geographical boundaries.
The need to “take the brave pill” and experiment with participation. A phrase that became a familiar trope of the evening was “take brave pill.” The case for greater democracy cannot be made without showing that it works – and the only way to show it works is to try it. Councillors, officers and government need to take a leap of faith and local people need to be involved as much as possible in shaping future decision making processes.
This conversation must go deeper than just local councils and go direct to local communities. As part of changing local government there is a need to go beyond Local Authorities, fill the gap between people and local institutions, and work directly with those who are experts in their own lives, services and place: local people. Understanding how people feel about democracy and the way in which we could use tone, design and language to bring different audiences into the conversation is vital to make the change that is required.
During the evening we also experimented with capturing the conversation via live illustration which we will analyse in the coming weeks to pinpoint any further key themes that emerged on the night.
During 2015 ERS Scotland, Demsoc and COSLA will be working with interested local councils in Scotland to put some of those recommendations into practice. Moving from brave words to brave action is the task for 2015.
If you are interested in helping reshape local democracy in your area, please get in touch via Scotland@Demsoc.org