Empowering people after the referendum

This was a presentation delivered by James Mitchell at a recent conference on ‘Diversity, Citizenship and Identity in the UK 2015 and beyond’ in Glasgow City Council. The conference was organised by BEMIS, the national umbrella group supporting the development of the Ethnic Minorities Voluntary Sector in Scotland and was supported by the University of Swansea, GRAMNet, Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government.


Four years ago, the Christie Commission issued its report offering a critique of how we delivered public services and proposed four key ‘pillars’ that ought to inform our way forward. The critique suggested that past practice had been about doing things for and to people rather than with people.

New challenges were becoming evident – not least in terms of public spending. In the words of Bob Black, former Auditor General in June 2010, ‘A long hard financial winter’ lay ahead. But arguably the greatest challenges remained the deeply engrained ‘wicked problems’.

There was nothing new in what was recommended. Reforms were required and should be based on four PILLARS:
– empowering individuals and communities
– partnership and integration of services
– a shift towards preventive
– greater efficiency in delivering services.

Christie reported only a few month after the May 2011 Holyrood elections. The election result meant that a referendum on independence was likely. The backdrop of an impending referendum and the growing pressures on public services left many thinking that the Christie agenda might be marginalized. As Gutman and Thompson would note in their book published the following year, there are two mindsets in politics: a campaign mindset that blocks out compromise and a governing mindset that inclines campaigners to respect each other and search for common ground. Christie was about governing. The referendum would be about campaigning.

While the referendum did involve a highly adversarial battle with protagonists and antagonists conforming to the campaign mindset what also emerged was something very different and surprising. Two very different styles of campaigns emerged. While the usual Gladiatorial contest took place in the television studios and elsewhere, deliberation occurred that conformed more with what Gutman and Thompson would associate with the governing mindset. These were constructive and unlimited discussions and debates on the kind of society, economy and state that was desired. The referendum on independence may have provoked these debates but what was discussed was almost limitless.

These unconstrained debates cannot easily be captured but three examples give a flavour of what was happening.

Our Islands, Our Futures was a joint campaign of Scotland’s three island local authorities – Orkney, Shetland and the Nan Eilean Siar – on the future of Scotland’s island communities. Along with the Commission on Local Democracy, Our Islands campaign debated the future of local communities. It drew in people from across the political spectrum and challenged authority – both UK and Scottish Government – to respond.

The second example, particularly relevant now, was the work of the Scottish Refugee Council. The SRC also insinuated itself into the independence debate. Like Our Islands, those involved did not take sides but raised questions on the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland. The SRC produced a report, published in January 2013, Improving the Lives of Refugees in Scotland after the Referendum set out key principles for a fair system, considered a variety of options and made a series of recommendations that fed into wider debates. It was based on expertise and discussions within the refugee community.

The third example is something broader – the many meetings throughout the referendum. Nobody could possibly attend more than a fraction of these and capturing their essence is difficult but these observations are based on attending some and speaking to many more people who had attended such meetings. It should be stressed that the term ‘meeting’ here is used loosely. These were not always traditional public meetings but took a variety of forms as noted by the characteristics below.
i. Authenticity: those speaking did not always keep to time but stuck to what they cared about;
ii. Expansive: the issues could vary from local to international issues creating an expansive, permissive agenda;
iii. Respect: perhaps most notable was that the distinction between the platform and the public often dissolved in ensuing discussions.

The presence of national politicians often created a different mood at meetings and when there was no ‘big name’ (or any of the aspiring ‘big names’, of which there were plenty) present tended to conform more to this pattern.

Christie’s critique of Scottish public life had given way to something unexpected. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Scotland had changed. Various figures are remembered from the referendum: the 55% No or 45% Yes but the 85% turnout that was most significant from the perspective of the Christie agenda. And it was 85% of a much higher level of registration than previously.

The challenge is how to sustain and build on the democratic renewal. The referendum demonstrated an appetite for engagement. There are some key issues that need to be acknowledged, addressed:
i. The excitement generated by the referendum needs to be mobilized and linked to Christie’s objectives to ensure the broadest possible engagement.
ii. The relationship between representative democracy and deliberation remains unresolved – perhaps it can’t be resolved – but needs to be discussed.
iii. While there was exceptional turnout in the referendum, there was a significant minority who remained unengaged. These are, by definition, the most marginalized of our fellow citizens and the challenge is to identify and attempt to engage with them.
iv. Increased public engagement should lead to new issues being raised and alternatives to established policies and practices will therefore be challenging.
v. While deliberation can be conducted without confrontation, challenges arising from engagement should be expected to shifts in balance of power and this will be resisted strongly in some quarters,
vi. There are ‘entrepreneurs’ keen to be part of the engagement industry with the danger of industry voices drowning out the voices of the public.
vii. There is something perverse in the hopelessly opaque language used by some in this emerging industry and re-invention of ideas and mechanisms that all boil down to something straightforward. There are now numerous models, methods and ‘toolkits’ for public engagement – a lot of fancy terms for what should be quite simple.
viii. Civil society has its uncivil side – nobody should have any illusions that opening up debate can or should be restricted to voices that make us comfortable.
ix. We cannot – and should not – be sure about what will emerge when there is greater public engagement.

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