Richson Simeon of the Marshall Islands was by some distance, the slowest athlete to run at Rio. Not that he cared one jot. He was ‘competing’ against the fastest man on the planet and loving every second – 11.81 of them to be precise. For Richson it was the taking part that counted. But while that ideal may work for the Olympics, it has been the long and bitter experience of many communities that being prepared to take part all too often counts for nothing when push comes to shove.
Even so, and in the face of inevitable scepticism from many quarters, Scottish Government is determined that civic participation will be invested with new meaning and status across the full range of public sector functions and priorities. It seems that taking part, rather than the ballot box, is the Governments roadmap of choice towards democratic renewal. And this is a map with many different routes – we’re only in the foothills of participatory budgeting, but there’s clearly huge potential (and Ministerial support) for it to become much more mainstream; there’s a good chance that participation requests may emerge as the dark horse of the Community Empowerment Act; the planning system is striving (although so far failing) to broaden its reach much more effectively into communities; and there’s even a Decentralisation Bill coming down the line.
We, the citizens, are about to be awash with invitations and opportunities to participate in the civic life of our villages, towns and beyond.
But the problem with participatory democracy is that it only matters if others allow it to matter. Participatory budgeting will only stray from those foothills if and when the decisions that are made begin to impact on the lives of those communities (for better or for worse). If not, PB could be consigned forever to the business of distributing the small change found down the back of the Council sofa. By the same token, participation requests, if received in the right spirit, could transform the way in which services are delivered. But by the same token, because those same requests can be effectively refused at every turn and with no right of appeal to Ministers, that could be the end of that.
And so the list goes on. Every single dish from this veritable smorgasbord of participatory delights, requires a reciprocal act of goodwill from some public body if they are to have any lasting impact. By this, I am of course referring to the holy grail of public service reform – culture change. The fact that this has proved to be so elusive is not surprising. Few people, if any, have been able to articulate what it actually means. It has become that convenient catch all solution whenever an organisational conundrum presents itself. Experience has taught us that culture change is not something that organisations willingly buy into.
There are however two extra ingredients that might just deliver, if not the necessary goodwill, at least the removal of serious resistance and this could have the same effect. The first is the dawning realisation right across the public sector that the report of the Christie Commission, published over 5 years ago, actually wasn’t a call to do the same old things but just a little bit better. It was in fact an acknowledgment that despite a steady growth in public expenditure in real terms over the previous 20 years, the outcomes were actually getting worse. In other words, a bizarre set of diseconomies of scale were kicking in and our whole system of public services had, in broad terms, become dysfunctional.
And then, just in case there were still some who felt able to mount a defence of the old top down, command and control approach to public service delivery, along came the second ingredient to deliver the coup de grace. Austerity in all its finery. Courtesy of our bankers, unprecedented cuts to budgets that extend way beyond the low hanging fruit of non-statutory provision. Thousands of council staff have already been lost with many more to come. And most of them are the ones that cost the most and leave with the greatest amount of experience and know-how. The capacity of the state is being seriously denuded. We have, to be frank, run out of options. If people don’t get active then a lot of things they care about simply won’t exist or happen as they have in the past.
So there is rich irony in all of this. For as long as I have been a community worker, the case for much greater empowerment of communities, and the principle of subsidiarity, that any decision that impacts directly on a community should be taken as close to that community as possible, has been routinely ignored or dismissed by local councils and many others in the public sector. And yet now we all find ourselves in a place, not necessarily of our making, where that becomes these most likely outcome. Not because communities necessarily want it and certainly not because the state would have chosen it. But without it there simply won’t be much left. And so participation may yet become, by default, the new expression of local democracy.