People in Scotland have grown ever more critical of those with decision-making power. Trust between policymakers and the public has fallen and continues to do so, though this is a global issue, and one Scotland does not face alone. Respect for those making decisions on behalf of the Scottish public can no longer be taken for granted. With this growing mistrust and cynicism comes the need to find ways of opening up decision-making processes throughout the country, making them accessible and transparent for all.
With accessible and transparent processes, there is a need to ensure that any new ways of working come hand in hand with broadening the diversity of the people who influence this new form of decision-making. Scotland views itself as a strong liberal democracy, but growing mistrust of decision-making bodies coupled with processes which fail to promote inclusivity and diversity work against this perception. If Scotland is to truly be seen as a democratic leader, we need to rethink how we approach policymaking and implement innovative ways of working which embrace citizens and decision-makers as equals.
Since, and before, the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016, the discourse surrounding the term ‘citizenship’ has been claimed by a divisive and quite often toxic discussion which links the term to the immigration status of an individual, and overlooks the true meaning of the term citizen within a democracy.
As political uncertainty continues, caused by the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU, what it means to be a citizen is put under a microscope by the public, parliamentarians and the media. However, we believe that citizenship is down to enabling individuals to fully participate in communities in the wider society and to contribute as much as they want to. We want to see citizenship inextricably linked with the promotion of inclusivity and empowerment, an ambition we believe that Scotland can both achieve and surpass.
However, the upskilling of citizens to ensure they are effectively participating in decision-making is only possible if the right structures and mind-sets that foster participation are in place throughout these bodies. This includes a commitment to further developing the concept of open government within Scotland. Open government is reliant on three key areas which include transparency, participation and accountability. Transparency related to the opening up of government data and information on areas such as public spending, government contracts, lobbying, the development and impact of policy and public service performance. Participation looks to ensure that Scotland has a strong and independent civil society, one which involves its citizens and other relevant stakeholders in decision-making processes. Accountability refers to the rules, laws and mechanisms that ensure government listens, learns, responds and changes when required.
We are aware that the Scottish Government has committed to the delivery of these principles which is exemplified by the Open Government Partnership. However, there is still work to be done to ensure that Scotland is truly embracing open government and harnessing the opportunity to transform the way government and public service work to ensure they are responsive and beholden to the citizens they serve.
This, open government, coupled with the strengthening of participative democracy in Scotland, would empower citizens throughout the country to engage in decision-making structures. Scotland can still be described as a representative democracy, one whereby citizens have minimal input into decision-making, with their role restricted to casting a ballot during an election every four years. To move towards participative democracy, official processes are required which empower citizens through participation. Participative democratic models are already beginning to manifest themselves in Scotland, for example, the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland. However, there is still a long way to go.
- Communication - Institutions should do more to engage the public and work in different ways to ensure their communication is more meaningful, effective and accessible.
- Participation - Institutions should offer people across Scotland direct and innovative ways to participate and have their voices heard in decisions across government.
- Transparency - Institutions must be more transparent about data, procurement decisions and create a culture where their decisions are much clearer to the public.
Open policy development
Communication relating to public policy development at all levels should involve a two-way communication process. Scotland’s decision-making bodies should engage with citizens to support policy development in a pro-active and accessible manner but should also engage with citizens on how and why the development is being undertaken throughout the process.
The involvement of service users in forming policy which impacts them from the very beginning of the process will help to identify challenges policies may face, further down the line, early in the process. This approach not only instils openness and transparency, but it also offers Scotland the opportunity to open the process up to new ideas, techniques and voices.
Empower people to be active citizens
Decision-making bodies in Scotland should explore innovative ways to gather insight from the public in a meaningful way that places emphasis on those furthest from the decision-making process. Ensuring that all barriers are removed from participation, and no one’s voice or lived experience is more important than another’s.
Improving the scope and accessibility of channels which feed into decision-making improves the quality of those decisions and lends validity to the development process. Scotland should place importance in capturing the opinions of those who have been marginalised in the past and develop innovative methods of amplifying and embracing these voices in the policy-making process.
Comprehensive transparency processes provide citizens with the opportunity to independently scrutinise and examine governmental functions, therefore allowing greater levels of decision-maker accountability. Scotland’s Open Government Action Plan acknowledges this and must be built upon and advanced further throughout the decade.
In line with this, Institutions across Scotland should publish timely data in an open format. It should ensure all data is presented in an interrogative state as well as easily understood by the general public. This should include all detail relating to finance (including procurement activity), performance, and policy decision-making/delivery.