If local government is to succeed in making the case against centralisation, councils need to adopt ways of meaningfully engaging with communities.
The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy rightly identified that 50 years of centralisation has not tackled the biggest problems that Scotland faces. The temptation for ministers sitting in Edinburgh to try and direct services locally is a strong one, particularly when you have been in power for a long time. However, it is a temptation that should be resisted, because even in a small country it is wrong in principle and will fail dismally in practice.
If the Scottish Government can be criticised for holding powers nationally, councils risk similar criticism if they don’t devolve to real communities. Our local government structures are some of the largest in Europe and usually consist of several distinct communities. In a Reid Foundation paper published this month, I make the case for focusing the delivery of public services on these communities, building from the bottom up.
Such an approach requires the adoption of new ways of engaging communities of place and interest in the decisions that matter. The academic author Richard Dagger described this as “civic virtue” when he wrote: “The virtuous citizen must be free, but not simply free to go his or her own way. Instead the citizen is free when he or she participates in the government of his or her community.”
In recent years this debate has been trapped in the concept of “localism”. Too often this has meant the adoption of market mechanisms that treat local people simply as consumers of services, rather than informed citizens who can make collective decisions about local services.
There are a number of initiatives that are attempting to progress this.
There is the concept of the Co-operative Council. The City of Edinburgh Council describes itself as such and is part of the Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network, a collaboration between local authorities committed to transforming the way they work with communities. This is a much wider concept than simply mutuals as a service delivery organisation. It builds on the traditions of the co-operative movement to encourage collective action, co-operation and empowerment.
The Carnegie Trust started a project in 2012 it calls “The Enabling State”. The name is unfortunate, given the similarity to Nicholas Ridley’s infamous “Enabling Council” booklet, but the concept is different. They argue that we need to rethink the relationship between the state and communities and citizens, with the state playing a facilitative and enabling role. They have funded a number of local initiatives to illustrate the concept in practice. Almost all of these projects identify a connection with the state – “getting out of the way” doesn’t mean rolling back the role of the state.
A more radical form of engagement is Participatory Budgeting (PB). This presents the opportunity for elected representatives to work more closely and collaboratively with citizens to develop new and innovative solutions to economic policy, and in handing over money as well as responsibility to citizens to vote on such models. This is rapidly becoming a global movement including cities such as New York, Seville, Toronto and Paris. Portugal has recently announced a participatory budget on a national scale.
In Scotland, £1.75 million has been invested in 179 PB projects, with most PB taking place in disadvantaged areas.
However, the first review report also uncovered little evidence of PB processes featuring substantial opportunities for public dialogue and deliberation between participants. It also highlights a lack of information and evaluation on existing PB processes, and finds few examples of PB happening in rural areas.
Effective deliberative participatory budgeting processes have allowed citizens to understand the needs of other areas and individuals as much as their own, and to think about how to create a better, more inclusive local economy, not just for themselves, but for everyone.
Arguably, none of these ideas on their own offer a perfect solution. However, they do point to a more meaningful collective engagement of citizens than traditional consultation mechanisms.
It does mean relinquishing power and that can be a scary prospect whether you are sitting in St Andrew’s House, which accommodates Scottish Government civil servants, or the civic centre. The prize for local government is citizens who are committed to local services and politically resistant to any national government’s centralising tendencies.
Councils rightly point to their democratic mandate – they are local government, not local administration. However, electing councillors every few years is not enough. Democracy has to be more than that important mechanism. There is also a proper role for central government in a small country; it’s about frameworks and outcomes, not service delivery.
Engagement could form the basis for a different approach to the delivery of public services than the current piecemeal reform to schools, hospitals, social care, skills and others in the government’s programme. Instead we can build a holistic solution to public service reform that starts with people and communities and then consider what powers are granted up to local government and central government. We as citizens will also have to discover the value of civic virtue.
Dave Watson is the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland