Published on November 7, 2014

Democratic reform: no obvious answers, just tentative steps

People & participation Scotland

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

On Monday evening, along with Demsoc, Democratise and the Centre for the Study of Democracy, we hosted an open space exploring how civil society might capitalise on the momentum of the Scottish referendum to start a meaningful national conversation about democratic reform. The event was inspired by posts from me, Andy Williamson of Democratise and Anthony Zacharweski of Demsoc

Andy has blogged about the themes that emerged for him during the discussion. My colleague Sonia Bussu has blogged on her perspective on what she heard and started thinking about an action plan. Diane Beddoes from Dialogue by Design has written a post about how she found more questions than answers, but is keen to find ways to answer them.

While the evening was full of energy, buzzing with ideas and included lots of very useful and (for me) new discussions, we didn’t identify the two or three obvious next steps to take.

I thought it might be helpful to quickly capture my thoughts about what I took away from the evening and what I think Involve’s next few steps will be. I’d be really interested in your thoughts about this.

There’s lots going on already – I’m incredibly frustrated by how the post Scottish referendum debate in England has developed (captured by politicians for narrow political advantage). I had allowed my frustration to lead me to want to get active immediately, and all my thinking had been focused on starting a better informed debate focused on the good of the country over the long term (for my children and grandchildren).

This desire to ‘do something’ had blinded me to what is already going on. People are already active, and we heard about some of this on Monday evening, including about some incredibly well attended public debates about devolution (200 people paying £15 to go to an evening event in Manchester, for example – h/t Ed Cox, IPPR North).

The incredibly active debate before (and after) the Scottish referendum didn’t come about overnight, or even in the 18 months leading up to the referendum. It was 60 years or more in the making. In addition, after 60 years of work, over the past 18 months Scotland faced a stark ‘yes/no’ question. Finally, there were a good number of civil society groups willing to go out, night after night, to make the case. It is this particular combination of factors that stimulated the countrywide debate.

Nothing like these conditions exist in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Any thought that the debate in Scotland can be somehow exported to the other countries in the UK appears to me to be based on a false understanding of what happened in the run-up to the  referendum.

The particular character of the nations and regions of the UK means that different issues will energise citizens in different places.  Debates about devolution and regional assemblies might find some takers in some northern cities and regions (Yorkshire being an obvious example), but will be treated with indifference in other areas of the country. Any debates about the future distribution of power in the UK must start from local context if it is to get anywhere; I don’t believe there is scope for a meaningful, popular national debate about democratic reform right now.

It’s obvious, but most people aren’t interested in debating democratic reform. Indeed, we’ve been saying this since I arrived at Involve following the publication of our Pathways through Participation research. There will be some, and we heard about instances of this on Monday, who will get engaged in this debate directly. However, the vast majority of UK citizens are much more interested in paying the bills, finding a good school or care home for an elderly relative, for example.

It’s one thing to know this intellectually, and quite another to act on this knowledge, particularly when you work for an organisation dedicated to strengthening democracy.

So what does all this mean for Involve.

In his post (linked at top) Anthony’s first point about the best approach to take is that it should be:

…an experiment in itself. We are trying to follow the sort of approach we want to see in government: open, participative and representative. We’ll be discovering as we go along, and not clamming up when things go wrong…

We’ll experiment rather than put all our eggs into one basket: whatever we do we’re going to do in the spirit of open inquiry, testing different approaches, trying to move quickly and build on those things that we think are working.

Identify, join and connect up existing activity: We now aren’t going to rush into trying to stimulate debates on democratic reform across the country. Instead we’re going to take more time to understand what is going on already. Where we are welcome and think we can support existing objectives and priorities we’ll see if we can join in. If we find similar local debates going on in different areas of the country we’ll try to help connect them up, to build strength in numbers.

Understand the connections better: Given that most people aren’t going to throw themselves headlong into a debate about democratic reform, we are going to take more time to understand where people are challenging the way decisions are taken. Are there ways we can link these challenges to the debate about democratic reform (without sucking the life out of them)?

This approach requires me to step back, learn more and do less. It’s painful and I can feel myself chomping at the bit. But we’re dealing with an incredibly complex debate across multiple political, economic and cultural boundaries. We’re just going to have to live with this complexity and ambiguity; we certainly can’t manage it away. We’re going to have to take time to find our own place within it, and be in it for the long haul. Otherwise we’d be as bad as the politicians only looking 6 months ahead for narrow self advantage.

Picture credit: zgrredek on flickr

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