Scotland’s participation ‘spring’; what are the Scottish Government doing?

Scotland is in the midst of a ‘participation spring’; a unique and enviable position for a government and politicians to have such engaged and involved citizens. But there is a risk that this could all go to waste if the Scottish Government doesn’t seize this opportunity to engage and involve the public in meaningful participation.

The Scottish Government are moving ever closer to making serious commitments to this agenda, bringing the executive one step nearer to realising the First Minister’s vision for her Government to be “the most open and accessible that Scotland has ever had”. Nicola Sturgeon has made her desire for more democratic participation very clear, and the time has come for civil servants within Scottish Government to match her ambition.

Last week saw the Scottish Government host the first ever ‘Participation Week’ – a series of events on the ‘what’s’, ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’ of participation. The events appeared to be designed to encourage civil servants to embrace participation with the public when formulating and implementing policy. 

Our Governor Dr. Andy Williamson speaking at the launch of participation week; cute kittens to inspire group discussions on fear and barriers to public participation
Our Governor Dr. Andy Williamson speaking at the launch of participation week; cute kittens to inspire group discussions on fear and barriers to public participation

The week signalled the Scottish Government’s commitment to making some serious headway on the First Minister’s agenda. For those of us involved in the democratic sector, it was incredibly exciting to see participation on the agenda at such a high profile.

Current thinking on participation and engagement is not entirely new to the Scottish Government and indeed many senior civil servants were involved in a project on collaborative working and participation last July, called ‘Collaborative Government Scotland’. It is a welcome move to see this initial thinking in the Scottish Government growing into ambition for bigger projects. This is partly thanks to political backing from the First Minister and the energy generated around the Independence Referendum to encourage the Scottish Government’s ambitions.

Sarah Davidson, Director General of Communities welcomes participants for the beginning of Scottish Governments first Participation Week
Sarah Davidson, Director General of Communities welcomes participants for the beginning of Scottish Government’s first Participation Week

There were a few core messages that cropped up consistently throughout ‘Participation Week.’ These key themes, outlined below, adequately summarise the Scottish Government’s progress on the challenge of making public participation a regular occurrence in the work of the civil service.

(1) “It’s not ‘if’, but how we do participation”. This statement from Sarah Davidson, Director General for Communities, clearly states the readiness of the Scottish Government to arm themselves with knowledge and practical guidance to mobilise and facilitate meaningful engagement with the public. In other words, they understand the benefits and arguably the necessity for public engagement and participation in their work. It suggests they are ready to start planning how this can be done. 

  • (2) Facilitating public participation on a national scale will require a joined-up approach from all levels of governance. Throughout the week, it became apparent that there is a clear need for local and national levels to work together to push forward the agenda on democratic renewal. This collaboration also requires the input and support from citizens and civic society.
  • (3) There is clear political appetite in Scotland for participation, but it needs to be thought through more thoroughly. There needs to be consideration given to the impact this will have on individuals in their day jobs – and how this can be incorporated so that it becomes the norm. Some public servants seemed concerned about how they can balance cost and time constraints of participation with their on-going responsibilities.

(4) The political will needs to be matched at all levels of governance, and space must be provided for this to happen. One session on ‘Making Space for Democracy’ looked at the early example of ‘Tings’ from the old Norse World; over 1000 years ago, where networks existed up and down the country for decision-making. ‘Tings’ encouraged an interesting discussion on collaborative working between people and governance, and how a similar space could exist in Scotland today.

Simon Burall, Director at Involve, speaking at 'Participation - What works?' event
Simon Burall, Director at Involve, speaking at ‘Participation – What works?’ event


But now that Participation Week is over, what’s next?

The hopes for ‘Participation Year’, as one civil servant put it, may not seem such a distant dream. The civil servants, equipped with the knowledge and enthusiasm for public participation, are able to begin the process of culture change from within. The public are engaged and enthusiastic about politics and the Scottish Government can facilitate and mobilize their interaction, allowing for an innovative and exciting way to increase public participation and involvement in decision-making. Civil society and those working in the democratic sector are ready and willing to assist with their expertise and specialism. The Scottish Government just needs to start doing more participation – and before they miss their best opportunity to do so.

So far, the Scottish Government talks the talk, but does not yet walk the walk of participation. It’s going to be a bumpy road, but what has become clear from this week, is that there are plenty of us to walk the walk together.

You can find out more about Participation Week on Twitter: @scotgov @worktogether15 #worktogether15

If you’re interested in participation in Scotland- or just politics more generally, come along to our #HolyroodTweetUp on Friday! We’ll be in Hemma Bar in Edinburgh from 7.30pm for pints, politics and chat. Sign-up on our Eventbrite. See you there!