We don’t like to toot our own horn (just kidding, we totally do) – but PDP #8 was a definite success.
Held in Glasgow on a gloriously sunny day, we were delighted to see the venue full up, with a few people even standing at the back. The event took place in the Tron Theatre, which not only was a great venue but also meant that we had professional stage lighting, so our speakers and guests were all bathed in a lovely purple glow. (For some reason the photos make it look much more intensely purple than it actually was.)
We try and hold events at times that will be convenient to everyone, including people who might be at work. This one started at noon, so people could come down on their lunch break, and you can bet free lunch was included. No holds barred.
Delib director Ben Fowkes kicked off the event with a brief introduction and run-down of Delib’s history. If you’re interested to learn more about our origins, check out this podcast where he chats with founders Andy Parkhouse and Chris Quigley.
Niamh Webster: Scottish Government
The first of our four speakers was Niamh Webster. Currently she works for the Scottish Government, helping to coordinate their Open Government Programme – an international partnership of over 90 governments all around the world, who have all signed up to principles of openness, transparency and public involvement. Scotland joined in 2016.
One of the key things she has learned about this programme is the importance of partnership to deliver effective results – both as part of the global programme, and closer to home in individual policies. As part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to openness, they have released the Open Government Action Plan. In keeping with Scot Gov’s pledge to meaningfully involve the public, they put the Plan out to consultation.
They quickly realised that their consultation activity wasn’t working for a few reasons. In order for it to be effective, they needed to change the method – which also involved recognising the changing role of the citizen in public participation. The language they were using was too complex and jargon-heavy (we come across a lot of ‘Council-ese’ in our work at Delib); there was a lot that people didn’t understand about the Plan itself and also about wider government processes.
What also became clear was that they needed to involve other partner organisations – for example, local governments, community organisations, and charities. Citizens had concerns not just relating to the Action Plan, but also to more localised issues. For the consultations to properly function, and for all concerns to be considered properly, they recognised that they needed to engage everyone with an approach that best suited their needs.
Ali Stoddart: Scottish Parliament
Next up we had Ali Stoddart, who works for the Scottish Parliament’s Committee Engagement Unit (CEU). The unit was set up as part of Scottish Parliament’s Public Engagement Strategy, aimed at helping committees within Parliament engage effectively with the public. He is decidedly not a fan of the ‘filling out a form in Word and attaching it to an email’ model of engagement (we aren’t either). CEU ran a comparison of this traditional method and a digital approach – digital was much more popular with the public and would be used more. No surprises there!
He talked about how they were both improving the consultation process and bringing innovation into the fold – he gave Delib a nice shout-out, in that they have used Dialogue for online discussion and debate, and will be using Citizen Space in the near future to manage their consultation activity. They used Dialogue to garner views from young people on the best ways to improve how they access mental health support, which worked well as it was a safe space for teens to talk about deeply personal issues (submissions can be anonymous) while feeling assured that someone was actually going to pay attention.
Ali also told us about an initiative called Young Women Lead, a leadership programme for women under 30. They’ve held committee meetings in the Scottish Parliament on issues such as female participation in sports and sexual harassment in schools.
Some challenges he’s come up against in improving public participation revolved around bringing employees round to a new way of doing things. Engagement could be seen as a luxury, or as creating additional workload; and work needs to be done on convincing sceptics to sign up to the idea as well as those who were already willing. Another issue is finding time and resources to learn new skills in a busy organisation.
Vilte Vaitkute: Media Co-op
Lastly, we had a presentation from Vilte Vaitkute of Media Co-op. They’re an organisation who run participatory film-making projects. She showed a selection of short films created collaboratively by a wide range of people. The first she showed us was called Strong Man, about the damaging effects of violence against women – and against the perpetrators themselves. 67 people were involved in its creation. She said – and this could be applied to government and politics as well – that she loves participatory projects, because handing power to the people to create something of their own results in a sense of ownership, pride and a great deal of honesty.
She showed us several more films: one was made by young people about being in foster care; one was about two young people and their carers; and one about the importance of staying active in old age. Their oldest participant was 93.
After a break for lunch, we went in to a panel discussion/audience Q&A. Vilte’s colleague, Louise Scott, joined the speakers for the discussion. All of the questions were thoughtful and probing, and there were lots of them. Here are a couple of highlights:
There was a question on the public’s opinion on participation activities – the term ‘consultation fatigue’ was mentioned. Ali said that attitudes do need to change on this – public participation needs to become part of everyday life. (Our ethos at Delib of lowering the barriers to consultation, and making the process of participation simple for the citizen, is part of how that could change.) Vilte agreed that participation can be difficult, but told us a story of a young boy she worked with who was worried his friends would make fun of him for being involved in the project – but when it came to the screening, he lit up with pride. When we see the results of our participation, we feel included and it can be exhilarating.
David asked Niamh to talk more about her point that the role of the citizen is changing, and how we can support citizens in participating more and taking more of a deliberative approach. She replied that it’s a concept she’s ruminating over and would love to hear people’s thoughts on how we can bring that change from the bottom up. Ali added that there is an element of learning to be a participant: that many people who’ve been involved in deliberative processes are surprised at how they’re run and how effective they are; and that education on how public participation works is something that organisations can teach and facilitate.
All in all, it was an excellent and informative event. Our speakers covered some fascinating topics and the audience was attentive and insightful. Thanks to everyone who came and if you didn’t make it, don’t worry – the Practical Democracy Project is an event series, so we’ll be putting on another one in the not-so-distant future. Sign up to our newsletter to be notified when we arrange our next one.