What Works Scotland is sharing its findings from a trial of a ‘mini-public’ process to enable communities and public services to interact more meaningfully.

The Christie Commission set the agenda for public services – including police and fire services – to pursue wider and better community engagement. But existing UK research shows that the conventional ways in which police services tend to engage with the public has limitations; many people don’t attend community meetings, those who do attend are not fully representative of the community, and the terms of engagement are narrow and largely set by the police.

So What Works Scotland joined forces with police, fire and council services in the North East of Scotland to experiment with a ‘mini-public’ approach – in this case a citizens’ jury – which brings together a group of people, representative of the local community, to work together to solve a problem. The topic for the citizens’ jury was a community bonfire which, due to its popularity and size, was raising safety concerns for the local police and fire service.

Although citizens’ juries have been used with other public services this is the first research into its use for police-community engagement in the UK.

The project was led by What Works Scotland co-directors Nick Bland and Oliver Escobar from the University of Edinburgh.

There was practical support from Police Scotland North East Division’s Partnerships and Events team, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Aberdeenshire Council. It was co-funded by the Scottish Institute for Policing Research.

Local people – who were representative of the make-up of the wider community – were asked to join the jury. The jurors typically described themselves as not being involved in activism or any formal community groups. Their involvement in the jury was a new experience for them. They heard from expert witnesses, asked questions, considered the evidence, and produced their recommendations for the future of the bonfire.

They said they enjoyed being involved, the process had inspired them and they would do it again.

The researchers found that,

“Jurors admitted initial doubts and scepticism about taking part but by the end, there was unanimous support for the experience. They:

  • greatly enjoyed the experience and found the discussions very interesting;
  • would take part in a future jury on a local issue;
  • felt it showed local people can work together on decisions;
  • thought jury was good way to get public opinion and should be used for community decision-making.”

Representatives from the local public services were witnesses for the jury. The research discovered:

“Witnesses admitted surprise at the quality of their interaction with the jury. They felt the jury listened closely, asked serious, considered, constructive questions, and were thoughtful about what they heard.

All three local services saw a great deal of value in the jury. The process helped to ‘unblock’ the stalemate, renew relationships and open dialogue with the bonfire organisers, and gave them a more nuanced understanding of the community view. They saw benefit to applying the approach to other issues in other local contexts.”

Now What Works Scotland is sharing what we’ve learnt from this experiment so others can think about using this innovative approach for public engagement.

The project features in the Scottish Institute for Policing Research annual report and Nick Bland also presented the findings to the Police-Community Engagement Showcase, run by N8 Policing Research Partnership, in Leeds in May.

“This project points to latent enthusiasm and commitment present in communities and which is not activated by conventional police-community engagement. Approaches like citizens’ juries can enable meaningful participation; the experience can increase confidence, enthusiasm and interest in further civic participation. The potential for greater public participation in policing is a prize worth pursuing.”

Nick Bland

Read and download Local solutions to local problems: innovation in public participation – SIPR Annual Report 2016 (PDF)

A full report will be available soon on the What Works Scotland website.

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