We use the term participation in Christie’s expansive sense, which includes public participation in governance, policy development, decision-making, service design and delivery, and community-led action.

What Works Scotland has conducted extensive work on this theme. The underlying theory of change is that to improve outcomes, communities must be able to shape the services, policies and decisions that affect people’s lives.

Participation seeks to subvert the power inequalities that can result in policy agendas that are not reflective of the priorities, needs and aspirations of citizens across communities of place, identity or interest.

Graphic with cartoons capturing discussions from the Empowering People and Places conference

Graphic capturing discussions from the Empowering People and Places conference. Click to see a larger version

Research insights

Our research shows that this is one of the most prolific areas of activity in public service reform (PSR). There have been policy and legislative milestones that are helping to advance this agenda at national level, although the pace of development varies across local authority areas. The Community Empowerment Act (2015) is having an impact in the context of community planning, be it through the development of local outcome improvement plans, locality plans and various participatory processes with a particular focus on tackling inequalities. More broadly, the Act has created an authorising environment for democratic innovators in the public, third and community sectors to create new spaces for public participation.

An area of accelerated development has been participatory budgeting (PB), which in a few years has gone from a handful to hundreds of processes across the country, supported by investment at national and local level. We have seen experimentation with other democratic innovations, such as mini-publics, which are designed to include a cross-section of the population and to enable high quality public deliberation as a basis for informed decision-making. Our work has also offered insight into the contribution of community anchor organisations to the design and delivery of community-led public services that are highly responsive to local needs and aspirations.

Participation can be conceptualised as ‘invited’ by an organisation or institution, or ‘uninvited’, that is, initiated by citizens or community groups at grassroots level. Our research has explored both dimensions, usually termed ‘community engagement’ (invited) or ‘community action’ (uninvited). In terms of community engagement, we have noted increasing efforts from community planning partnerships (CPPs), third sector interfaces and other organisations and networks. (See also Community Planning after the Community Empowerment Act: The Second Survey of Community Planning Officials in Scotland). And we have also seen the proliferation of community action in a variety of contexts and issues, from disability, to skills training, community ownership of assets, economic development, health, food poverty or social exclusion to name a few.

The most common types of engagement organised by community planning workers are traditional processes, i.e. task groups, targeted workshops, and public meetings. But we have seen an increase in the use of democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting, mini-publics, collaborative governance and online platforms. Although community engagement is a burgeoning field of activity, it is not always seen as a key part of how community planning partnerships work and how decisions about priorities are made.

There are three challenges that can slow down current progress. Firstly, participatory processes require sustainable funding, long-term commitment, ongoing learning and adaptation, and sometimes institutional reform. Public funding is under pressure for community organisations and projects, and community workers across sectors often face unstable conditions. Secondly, there are challenges related to inclusion and diversity. Inequalities faced at large in society – education, confidence, resources, responsibilities (work and caring), language barriers, disabilities – often constitute the key barriers that prevent people from taking part in community engagement processes. Local community engagement can overcome some barriers to inclusion, but there are structural inequalities in society (e.g. income, wealth) that are beyond the scope of influence of local processes. Moreover, local participatory processes often struggle to demonstrate that they are engaging a cross-section of the population. We have documented the difficulty of ensuring equality in terms of access to, as well as influence within, participatory processes; but we have also offered strategies to address these issues in practice.

Finally, there is the challenge of increasing the deliberative quality of public participation. Deliberative quality refers to the standard of communication in public forums. Deliberative processes can create shared spaces for: exploring local complexities, including different interests and emotional commitments; bringing in evidence, expertise and insights to deepen dialogue; and facilitating deliberation to find common purpose and deal productively with unresolved differences.

Implications for policy and practice

Our key message is that for community participation to be worthwhile and make a difference, it must be inclusive, deliberative and consequential. This can be broken down into a focus on:

  • Lowering barriers to participation. Unless corrective measures are put in place, participatory processes will be skewed by the self-selection bias which limits what sections of the population can take advantage of opportunities to participate. This results in skewed agendas for policy and community action. To achieve greater levels of equity in participation, resources must be invested to help young people, single parents, carers and those suffering from financial problems to get involved. This will go some way to enabling people facing socio-economic challenges to take part and thus correct the over-representation of advantaged groups. There is also merit in considering how social innovations such as the Universal Basic Income may contribute to enhance citizenship and community engagement.
  • Investing in capacity and skills. Community organisers and trained facilitators play a central role in developing inclusive processes, designing productive forums, and mobilising communities to make a difference. Effective facilitation and process design are key factors that distinguish productive from unproductive community participation. Training and support must be offered to facilitators and organisers to ensure that they are equipped to deal with a high-pressure role.
  • Improving the deliberative quality of participatory processes. Even some of the most celebrated forms of community participation, such as participatory budgeting or community anchors, suffer from a deliberative deficit. But this is even more urgent when it comes to processes organised by public authorities and services. We have illustrated this with cases where creating the space to work through disagreement was a key component of what made an intervention effective, and by exploring the quality of deliberation in community planning partnerships. Deliberative models of participation aspire to a world where public decisions are made on the basis of the best available evidence and reasons, rather than the power of coercion, partisanship, interests or money. Promoting awareness and training on deliberative standards and facilitation must be an integral part of the formation of participation practitioners across sectors. More broadly, a deliberative culture should be incorporated into the ethos of public authorities and services.
  • Investing in digital participation. At local level, better use of online technology such as crowdsourcing platforms, deliberative forums, and community organising tools can complement face-to-face processes and boost inclusion, creativity, capacity and effectiveness. At national level, collaborative learning platforms are central to the continuous development of communities of practice. Tools and resources need to be managed to ensure they can continue to be used alongside the National Standards for Community Engagement.
  • Demonstrating the impact of community participation. There needs to be a transparent feedback loop between the input from a participatory process and the policies, services and decisions informed by it. Participants must know how their contribution has shaped the result, and if it hasn’t, the reasons must be explained. There needs to also be a clearer connection between activity at local and strategic levels. For example, the monitoring of the new local outcome improvement plans and locality plans should pay attention to the level and quality of community engagement in deciding priorities and developing policies and services. Monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of the Community Empowerment Act should pay close attention to the extent to which it contributes to reduce, increase or reproduce existing inequalities at local level and across Scotland.
  • Fostering a participative culture in public authorities. Commitment and buy-in to community participation is required particularly at a strategic political and senior management level. Participatory processes must be coherently embedded within institutional arrangements, which sometimes requires administrative reforms. For example, the mainstreaming of participatory budgeting agreed by COSLA and the Scottish Government may require reforming financial procedures in local authorities. Existing recognition and promotion criteria for senior staff should include demonstrating impact through community engagement that makes a difference to people’s lives.
  • Joining up participatory and representative democracy. Elected representatives at local and national level need to play a more prominent role in participatory processes. In some cases, they may contribute a constituency perspective as part of a deliberative process. In others, they may act as sponsors, organisers and even facilitators. Perhaps their most crucial role is to link the results of community participation into the system, whether that is the council chamber or parliament, or the decision body of a public authority. A more participatory and deliberative democracy needs to build on the strengths of representative institutions, as well as shore up their weaknesses.
  • Opening space for community action. Authority-led community engagement is important, but much of the current innovation and development are taking place in the domain of community-led action. For example, community anchor organisations show clear potential to mobilise and act on community interests, develop assets and deliver public services.[xxix] These spaces for participation, independent from the state and the market, and own by communities and for communities, must be supported and grown. Public authorities must recognise that a strong civil society and community sector are crucial to deliver on public service outcomes.

Cover of the report Key Messages About Public Service Reform in Scotland with What Works Scotland logo

What Works Scotland: Key messages about Public Service Reform in Scotland

See the full report and download a copy.