Tackling the ‘Poverty of Participation’

A Report from the Scottish Government’s Social Justice Engagement Workshop, by Elke Heins and Jan Eichhorn

The Scottish Government invited a range of organisations, including the Academy of Government, to an engagement workshop on 29 April 2015. The purpose was to discuss how to build public participation into a conversation on social justice in Scotland which the Government is intending to hold over the summer and autumn of 2015 with the aim to reach people who would normally not be in such conversations.

The turnout for this event held at the Grassmarket Community Project showed that there is clearly a lot of enthusiasm for social justice in Scotland. The third sector expectedly turned out in large numbers and, quite in contrast to many knowledge exchange events organised by academics like us, the Scottish Government itself fielded an impressive number of participants from various Departments that will be central to making a social justice strategy a success.

In her introductory remarks Shirley Laing from the Scottish Government explained that a paper serving as a ‘starting point’ for the conversation will be coming out in June alongside a call for participation. The Government emphasises that they want a meaningful, credible and shared discussion about the question what a socially fairer Scotland would look like in the future. In December a first version of a ‘shared action plan’ is then expected to be produced.

A change in policy, practice and culture is needed

Participants were quick to highlight that the social justice movement is already there, but the question is how to augment and celebrate the existing initiatives to meet the aspirations. It was agreed that we need to think and act differently if we want a different Scotland, starting with the way how we get the voice of the public heard on matters such as poverty or social justice, in a way that it is not just acknowledged but can have an influence. One participant aptly observed that ‘poverty of participation’ is at the core of many problems. It is simply not enough to look for quick fixes – for example, if there is a housing crisis, build homes; if there is unemployment, create jobs, and so on – but actually involve people in decision-making and include them in the ‘coproduction’ (although this term is arguably contested) in finding new solutions.

Recognising the problem of scarring effects from fairly tokenistic consultations in the past (often with the usual suspects) that disappeared into nowhere, there was a strong consensus that we need to have opportunities to discuss new, big ideas before they are brought to Parliament. The example of participatory budget discussions that were trialled elsewhere in Europe to ensure much more practical, continuing commitment of ordinary citizens seemed to have met with great interest among the workshop participants. Participants also thought that the process should focus on solutions, addressing what changes need to be made rather than just highlighting problems that are already well-understood. Engagement should not ‘start with chapter 1’ as there is already an abundance of knowledge out there.

What do people need to engage?

Several aspects were seen as important in making sure that a variety of people, including the seldom heard, become engaged in the conversation. First there is the issue of how to frame problem – we can’t start with a blank paper and ask people what social justice is to them, but we also can’t ask them to make policy recommendations when they don’t know what the basics are. The approach should not be a ‘what can we do for you’ but ‘with you’. Commitment in the form of making resources available was seen as one key element for a successful approach. Equally important though is the issue of trust in the process and leadership if real change is to be achieved. Government needs to be authentic and be willing to take something away from their convened discussion (other than, ‘oh we heard this all before’). It was advised not to come with a fixed definition and set of outcomes. Equally, the Government should sometimes use their power to facilitate and leave others to convene.

Different strategies for different groups

Regarding the question of how to implement a wide-ranging and impactful public conversation, simply inviting people to join the conversation would not be enough, the Scottish Government actively needs to seek out participants, keeping in mind various forms of discrimination and barriers to equality when trying to reach the most disadvantaged. More equal representation of those who have experienced social injustice is important – it may well slow down the conversation, but bring it to greater depth. However, it was also seen as important not only to ask ‘poor’ people, but everybody including middle and high income households as well as business if real change is to be achieved. Equally important is to involve those as equal partners who deliver the services and are charged with implementation.

In order to bring these various groups altogether different layers and form of conversations are needed. Standard approaches and representative deliberative formats were not seen as alternatives, but complimentary. These different voices need to be managed and be reassured that they were heard even though issues of trade-offs and choices are inevitable. It thus has to be made clear from the outset that there will be winners and losers, that political choices need to be made as there will be resource implications, conveying an understanding of why some things can’t change or when they might.

It also has to be recognised that a single policy as an outcome of this exercise is bound to fail as everyone’s needs are far too different to be met by one single policy.

Evidence, knowledge and the implementation gap

The half day was finished off with a very engaging presentation by Jason Leitch, National Clinical Director Healthcare Quality, on how to ‘untie the Gordian knot’ of social injustice. He criticised that for too long policy-makers have followed the illusion that you simply need to take the knowledge and evidence and put it into practice. Under the old model the design and approval of solutions happens in the conference room, while the implementation will be in the real world leading to the well-known implementation gap. A new model of policy making should include repeated tests and modifications in the real world at local level. Building in enough flexibility to respond to local needs and circumstances would be key if real change is to be instigated. While a lot of his stimulating talk resonated very well with what has been discussed around the tables before, some of his examples arguably are controversial and would have warranted a discussion, but there was no time for this on the day. Let’s hope the Scottish Government will make room for a proper debate when they start their conversation this autumn.


Elke Heins (@socpolEdinburgh) is lecturer in social policy and Jan Eichhorn (@eichhorn_jan) is chancellor’s fellow in social policy, both at the University of Edinburgh.

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