What would good democracy look like in Scotland?

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland asked people what good democracy would look like...

Juliet Swann
17 July 2014
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What does a good Scottish democracy look like? This is the question ERS Scotland asked almost 100 Scottish citizens two years ago.

Self-selecting but stratified, these ‘Members of the Scottish Public’ came together in Edinburgh for a day long facilitated deliberative discussion. We asked them to engage in some real blue sky thinking – it’s 2030 and Scotland is revered worldwide for its democracy. Which three things are you most proud of?

The results of that day were exciting, imaginative, aspirational, inspiring and sometimes radical. The challenge for us was to test those ideas for feasibility. To help us with this task we invited experts, practitioners, campaigners, academics, activists and various other interested individuals to join us at three roundtables, all of which also presented their findings to public events.

The findings of this ‘Democracy Max’ inquiry were published last August. The report catalogues a wealth of ideas and insights into how to improve Scottish democracy.  

Many of these ideas and suggestions are not new, but they do have a renewed relevance at this time. We selected eight which we thought deserved consideration as interventions to improve our democracy. 

  • - 'Mini-publics' - deliberative local groups working alongside representative democracy, empowering people to run their own towns and villages

  • - A Citizens' Assembly - a chamber of citizens, possibly selected like a jury, to check and challenge the elected politicians

  • - Funding reform - Parties funded in transparent ways other than through big donations from organisations or rich individuals

  • - Better Media - as traditional business models struggle and 'Press Barons' are exposed, our participants suggest ways for a greater number of voices to be heard and for media to operate more explicitly in the public interest

  • - Openness and transparency - a strong assumption that information should be publicly available and a case must be made as to why any information is not

  • - A statutory register of lobbying - that sets out who is lobbying whom and why

  • - Constitutional clarity - a written set of principles for Scots to unite around - setting out who we are and by which rules we wish to be governed

  • - An inbuilt system to review and advise on how the Scottish Parliament and Government fare in abiding by these principles

One thing that became clear as we advanced through the inquiry was the sense that if we could reclaim local democracy, re-engage people with decision making in their local communities, then that might start the ball rolling in a way that could transform how citizens relate to politics in Scotland.

But what would that look like? How could this be implemented? And given how much interest there is currently in local democracy, how could we be sure of using our resource in the most effective way?

As the other main learning point we had settled on was that using participative and deliberative techniques was a useful way to develop thinking and reach practical conclusions, we made plans to hold a second facilitated discussion, this time focussing on local democracy. We called this discussion ‘From Centre to Community’.

Working with Wendy Faulkner and Oliver Escobar from the Beltane deliberation network, we developed a programme for the day which we hoped would introduce participants to some new thinking about local democracy and democratic innovations being used at the local level. We invited both interested citizens and people we knew were working in this field. But no matter why they were there, everyone was treated as an equal citizen participant. No delegates lists, no surnames, just citizens talking to each other about local democracy.

Excitingly, again almost 100 people gave up their Saturday to come and discuss democracy with us. From the first session’s consensus statements, through thinking about pros and cons of suggested reforms, to finally coming up with possible action points and desired outcomes, it was an invigorating day full of energy, commitment and hope.

The three themes that came out of ‘From Centre to Community’ were:

1) Reform within existing structures – an acknowledgement that alongside radical innovations there were aspects of how democracy functions currently that we could be working to improve. Participants considered whether compulsory voting would make a difference, or a recall law. Should positive measures be included in legislation to ensure our elected bodies look more like us? Considering how many inquiries and consultations are currently in the picture where ideas like this could be discussed, ERS Scotland will be feeding in some of our participants’ thoughts to those processes. And we will be making suggestions as to how can we improve those self-same consultation processes?

2) New democratic structures – reflecting an appetite for citizen led decision making processes like mini-publics, empowered to make decisions and allocate spending in local communities. As well as mini-publics, we discussed participatory budgeting, citizens’ panels, and citizen involvement in drafting a constitution.

3) And finally, cultural change – our participants were keen to stress that for any of these reforms to have a long-lasting effect, attitudes towards involvement from both citizens and elected bodies had to change. This final strand therefore encompasses education to ensure every citizen is aware of their rights and responsibilities. It also includes the provision of broadband across Scotland, because if we are to capitalise on new technology as a way of engaging citizens, we must make sure access is universal. And it also includes provision and distribution of information. We must also be prepared to fail, and to learn and develop rather than step away in fear.

At ERS Scotland, we think that Scotland’s current debate, alongside a number of other inquiries and consultations offers an excellent opportunity to implement some reforms to existing structures. But more excitingly, we think there is a chance to establish a framework that will enable those democratic innovations that our participants were keen on. And once that framework is in place, we will be in a position to inform the cultural change required to ensure full and fulsome citizen engagement and participation.

Citizen led decision making would ideally be community led. But building self-confidence, ensuring equality of voice from all our communities, and developing an understanding of the techniques and the implications will take time. To provide that time alongside the resource to make participatory decision making work, our elected bodies must introduce change and must give that change time to bed in. If they provide the facility for communities to participate fully, then those same communities will learn to take power, make decisions and trust each other.

And empowering local communities, giving them more democratic power, doesn’t need a referendum; it just needs political will from our elected representatives. And now, when politics in Scotland is more energised than it has ever been, is the ideal opportunity to make our voices heard.


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