My name is Kaela Scott and I joined involve in November 2015 as their Engagement Lead for Scotland. This is a new post, not just for me but for the organisation as well, and I am thrilled to be in a position to help shape Involve’s contribution towards embedding increased public participation and a culture of deeper democratic engagement into Scottish public life.
I come to this post after 13 years of working in local government in Scotland – most recently as part of the community planning team at East Lothian Council. Here I was responsible for developing and supporting Area Partnership structures which, functioning as the local voice of community planning across the county, were designed to directly involve communities in establishing a shared vision for their area, planning how this could best be achieved, and allocating resources to achieve these goals.
Before that however I worked for 10 years in youth theatre and community arts (both in Australia and Scotland), ran a youthwork organisation for a couple of years and held Community Learning and Development posts focussed on public engagement and capacity building. While on face value this may seem like a rather eclectic career path, at the heart of all of this work was a commitment to equipping people with the skills and opportunities to have a stronger voice about things that mattered to them – and when seen from that perspective then the strands all converge into a clear path into my current engagement role with Involve.
… and it is an exciting time to be working in the democratic sector in Scotland.
The campaigns leading up to the 2014 independence referendum have been widely credited with igniting a ‘democratic spring’ across Scotland: an upsurge of political mobilisation realised in soaring rates of voter registrations, unprecedented participation in the referendum ballot, boosted party memberships and sustained to deliver record turnouts in the 2015 Westminster election. While these demonstrations of increased political activity may indeed be evidence of widening democratic engagement, for me the really exciting legacy of the referendum extends much deeper than the institutions of Politics (with a capital P).
Throughout 2014 the conversations that were taking place up and down the country – in public meetings and pubs, in web-forums and around dining tables and watercoolers – were about the type of future people wanted, not just for the country as a whole but for their own neighbourhoods and families. As the campaigns intensified, people debated, argued, learnt and disagreed; throughout it all however, having an opinion on what mattered for the future became the norm… and it is this momentum that I think we now have the opportunity to build on across Scotland.
Keeping people talking, engaged and believing that their ideas and opinions matter is where the challenge now lies, and at essence this comes back to the heart of what has been described as the Scottish approach – an approach to policy and governing focused on outcomes, an appreciation of assets (both individual and community) and principles of co-production. In a context in which community planning partnerships up and down the country are grappling with how to implement meaningful structures of governance at even more local levels, discussions around participatory budgeting are gaining traction, and public authorities are experimenting with a variety of models for user/stakeholder engagement, it is easy to think that we are already heading down the right road. Further, with the government citing ‘participation by everyone in the debates and decisions that matter to them most’ as one of the 3 underpinning principles guiding their current programme, it is difficult not to be optimistic about the possibilities.
Despite the enthusiasm evident from many quarters however, it is the practicalities that will undoubtedly prove the greatest test if we are to build on this momentum in a coherent and sustainable way. Actually achieving the type of transformational culture change in the way citizens and governments interact that is required for true co-production cannot, and will not, happen automatically. My work in community planning in recent years has given me a real, grounded understanding of the complex practical, political and policy work that is required to translate the desire to involve citizens in the decisions that affect them into processes that are meaningful and effective – for communities, public sector bodies and political administrations alike. This experience has also taught me that, regardless of the best intentions, it also rarely happens seamlessly.
Instead, making it work in practice involves citizens, policy-makers and politicians embarking on a difficult journey together – one of unexpected turns, probably a few false starts and, undeniably, some steep learning-curves – and this, in itself, requires dedicated time, support and investment. This is where I believe we at Involve will be able to play a part: bringing our experience in balancing the needs of different stakeholders to designing engagement processes that work for everyone involved and, through this, help navigate a route to embedding opportunities for participation more deeply into all aspects of Scottish public life.
As I said at the outset, however, this is a new post within Involve, and one that is going to be shaped by the conversations and debates that take place among those aligned with the democratic sector in Scotland over the coming months and beyond… and to this end I’d love to hear your ideas. I am based in Hayweight House in the centre of Edinburgh (come by for a cup of tea sometime) or alternatively you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KaelaJS or on 0131 281 0891.
Photo Credit: Multiple Choice by John Ivar Andresen