Tag Archives: Democracy

New forms of politics and policymaking in Scotland: participatory and deliberative democracy resurgent? #POLU9SP

When Neil McGarvey and I wrote the first edition of Scottish Politics, we devoted a full chapter (11) to definitions of democracy and post-1999 developments in Scottish democracy. In the second edition, we removed that chapter because there was nothing new to say.

Although the principles behind phrases such as ‘deliberative’ and ‘participative’ democracy are important, I felt that they often represented empty rhetoric in Scotland. In Scotland, we talked a lot about doing things differently, but produced political practices that would not seem out of place in Westminster.

Then came the debate on Scottish independence: the 85% turnout to vote Yes or No, the sense that Scotland was now – or again? – a hub for deliberation and high participation, and a new Scottish Government agenda on translating that participation into something longer term, to produce examples of participatory policymaking.

So, maybe we will have a chapter on participation in the 3rd edition. I doubt it. I reckon Scottish politics will soon revert to its old self.

I base this expectation on a logical argument about the relationship between representation and other forms of democracy, the previously too-high expectations for new Scottish politics, and a sense of unfulfilled expectations in the Scottish experience since devolution.

What can compete with representative (and pluralist) democracy?

In Scottish Politics (pp220-4), we argue that ‘new politics’ involves reforms to four kinds of democracy:

Representative democracy

This will remain the most important democratic mechanism because ‘direct democracy at a national level would involve too many participants with too little time to devote to politics, and insufficient knowledge to apply to the wide range of responsibilities of the modern state. The main alternative is representative or indirect democracy in which popular sovereignty is expressed through regular elections of representatives acting on their behalf’.

We lose sight of its importance when thinking about other forms of democracy as somehow replacing representative. Instead, we should treat any other activity as a bonus, and consider how it fits in to the bigger picture.

In this category, the most important developments relate to:

(1) the more proportional electoral system – mixed member proportional (MMP) – for the Scottish Parliament (previous lecture)

(2) successful attempts by some parties to make sure that MSPs better represent the social background of the population than their MP counterparts. I say ‘some parties’ but note from Scottish Politics – and these articles by Keating & Cairney, and Cairney, Keating & Wilson – that only Scottish Labour achieved gender parity among their MSPs (these issues are explored in greater depth by scholars such as Kenny and MacKay). In other ways, the experience is more mixed. The Scottish Parliament is often no better at ‘microcosmic’ representation in other key categories – such as ethnicity, disability, and sexuality – and it has its own version of a ‘political class’ divorced from the ‘real world’ outside of politics.

Pluralist Democracy

This category is the most relevant to the course, since it relates to the pervasiveness of ‘policy communities’ or networks in policymaking. Elections produce mass participation every 4 or 5 years, while policymaking and delivery happens all the time. Policymakers and ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups form relationships, build up trust, and engage regularly with each other. They discuss the principles and details of policies in a way that few actors can do without the specialist knowledge and time to engage.

In this category, the most important developments relate to:

(1) a vague sentiment, expressed by the SCC, to avoid speaking to the ‘usual suspects’ and, instead, to broaden consultation to many participants (an aim explored in the literature on the ‘Scottish policy style’). This sentiment was re-stated by the SNP government in 2007 as an attempt to consult beyond the ‘establishment’. In both cases, it is a soundbite that ignores the logic of consulting with the most interested, expert, and active groups (a point explored well by Jordan and Stevenson, which Neil and I discuss in chapter 11).

(2) A role for Scottish Parliament committees to oversee the quality of Scottish Government consultation, and take action – in relation to draft legislation – if it is not satisfied. I think that 2 committees have used this power in 16 years, but what does this statistic signify: that committees don’t have many powers in practice, or that the Scottish Government consults so well that the power only needs to be used rarely?

Participatory and deliberative democracy

For me, initiatives to increase participatory and deliberative democracy should be seen in this initial context of representative and pluralist democracy. Why start with a focus on initially exciting, but ultimately disappointing, new forms of participation without first stating that most participation is through elections and most deliberation in networks?

The SCC got the ball-of-hype rolling by declaring that Scotland has, ‘consistently declared through the ballot box the wish for an approach to public policy which accords more closely with its collective and community traditions’. We can talk in the lecture about how well substantiated such claims are.

Perhaps more importantly, the SCC did not design the details of devolution. So, while we may wonder what it might have come up with, we can say with greater certainty that the most important developments relate to:

(1) A Scottish Civic Forum to act as a new forum for participation and deliberation among a self-selecting public. It ran from 1999-2006. Well-established interest groups described it as a ‘talking shop’ and did not use it (they had their own access to government), but some community groups and individuals did. Yet, it was difficult to get many people involved (particularly in regional events) and even more difficult to feed its reports into government and parliamentary processes.

(2) A petitions process coordinated by the Scottish Parliament. See Chris Carman’s report and journal article on this. My take is that, although the petitions process gives people a way to engage in politics and, in a very small number of cases, set the parliament’s or government’s agenda on one or two issues, it is peripheral to the policy process.

(3) A wider sense that a powerful Scottish Parliament would become the hub for such initiatives and, through regular debate, become the main arena for public deliberation (see next lecture, but don’t get your hopes up).

Did we revisit those expectations during the debate on Scottish independence?

No, not really. Instead, we saw some interesting attempts to generate interest in participatory and deliberative forms of democracy beyond government and parliament – see ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max, and my take on it – but without meaningful ‘ownership’ of those initiatives by government or parliament. For example, have a look at the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Scottish independence and see what you can spot.

For me, the most telling part of this limited debate was the reference, by advocates of reform, to phrases like ‘politics is broken’ in 2014 when the same phrases were used to push forward political reforms in Scotland from 1999. This sense of déjà vu gives you an indicator of how far the ‘new Scottish politics’ has changed practices in Scotland.

What are the prospects for new forms of participation?

For me, deliberative and participatory politics represents the personal equivalent of things that I would like to do if I had the time. I have a list of colleagues that I’d like to work with more, and I have a vague desire to play a round of golf before I die. At the same time, in most cases, I know that I will never have the time. Indeed, when you care about something enough, you make the time.

To put it another way, when you don’t have the time or enthusiasm for something, it might be better just to stop pretending that a vague aim might pan out one day. It just gets in the way of a more meaningful discussion of what’s actually happening while we pretend that loads of people are participating in new ways of doing politics in Scotland.

Other opinions are available

There are people who know more about these things than me, or are younger and more optimistic about life. For example, Oliver Escobar is doing work on this topic as part of What Works Scotland, and his PhD is here. You might also bump into Peter Matthews or Vikki McCall on the other side of campus and ask them what they are up to.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

The Smith Commission: will greater powers come with greater democratic accountability?

The main focus of the Smith Commission is to decide which powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Yet, in practice, these powers are held by the Scottish Government and devolved to, or shared with, a large number of governmental, non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies. As a result, no one is quite sure who is responsible for decisions made in the name of the Scottish Parliament. This makes it almost impossible to identify a democratic system in which there are meaningful levels of accountability – either through the ballot box or in our day to day scrutiny of government policy. The Smith process should not just be a means to devolve greater powers. Rather, it should consider how to make sure that, with greater responsibility, comes greater democratic accountability.

Scotland has an apparently simple accountability process: power is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. This simple picture of ministerial accountability is increasingly misleading. The Scottish Government plays an overarching role in policymaking: it sets a broad strategy and invites a large number of public bodies to carry it out. Ministers devolve most day to day policymaking to civil servants. Most policy is processed in ‘policy communities’, which bring together civil servants, interest groups, and representatives of an extensive public sector landscape, including local, health, police, fire service and other service-specific bodies. This generally takes place out of the public spotlight and often with minimal parliamentary involvement. Indeed, few non-specialists could describe how these bodies interact and where key decisions on Scottish policy are being made.

Further, the Scottish public sector landscape is changing. The Scottish Government has moved from the production of short term targets to long term outcomes measures which go beyond the five-year terms of elected office. It often encourages localism. It has, since 2007, produced a National Performance Framework and rejected the idea that it can, or should, micromanage public sector bodies using performance measures combined with short term targets. Instead, it encourages them to cooperate to produce long term outcomes consistent with the Framework, through vehicles such as Community Planning Partnerships. Further, following its commitment to a ‘decisive shift to prevention’, it has begun to encourage reforms designed to harness greater community and service-user design of public services.

Most of these measures seem appropriate, particularly when they foster decision-making by local actors with greater knowledge of local areas. Yet, they are also troubling, because it is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for policy outcomes – and, therefore, who or what to hold to account. In the Scottish political system, the Scottish Government processes the vast majority of policy, the Scottish Parliament is generally peripheral to that day-to-day policy process, and the public has limited opportunities for direct influence.

This is important background which should inform the current debate, most of which focuses on more powers and neglects the need for more accountability. The Smith agenda gives us a chance to evaluate the devolution experience so far, and consider what might change if there is further devolution. As far as possible, we should focus on the Scottish political system as a whole, including the relationship between the Scottish Parliament, public participation, the Scottish Government, and a wide range of public sector bodies, most of which are unelected.

Consider, for example, if the system follows its current trajectory, towards a greater reliance on local governance. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.

Local decision-making also has the potential to change the ‘subsystem’ landscape. Currently, most Scottish policy is processed by civil servants who consult regularly with pressure participants. Most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government is done by (a) other parts or types of Government and (b) professional and interest groups. Civil servants rely on groups for information and advice, and they often form long term, efficient and productive relationships based on trust and regular exchange. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level. The Scottish Government is a key hub for policy relationships; it coordinates networks, referees disputes, and gathers information and advice at a central level. One consequence of devolving more power locally is that these groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.

Such developments may prompt discussions about three types of reform. The first relates to a greater need to develop local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.

The second relates to governance reforms which focus primarily on the relationship between elected local authorities, a wide range of unelected public bodies, and service users. There is some potential to establish a form of legitimacy through local elections but, as things stand, local authorities are expected to work in partnership with unelected bodies – not hold them to account. There is also some scope to develop a form of user-driven public service accountability, but separate from the electoral process and with an uncertain focus on how that process fits into the wider picture.

The third relates to parliamentary reform. So far, the Scottish Parliament has not responded significantly to governance trends and a shift to outcomes-focused policymaking. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees devote two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. It has the potential to change its role. It can shift its activities towards a focus on Scottish Government policy in broader terms, through the work of inquiries in general and its finance and audit functions in particular. However, its role will remain limited as long as it has a small permanent staff. The devolution of greater responsibilities to the Scottish Government, without a proportionate increase in Scottish Parliament research capacity, could simultaneously enhance and undermine the Scottish Parliament’s powers.

The Smith Commission provides a brief ‘window of opportunity’ to consider these issues of governance, participation and accountability – and how these problems may be exacerbated by the devolution of greater powers. We face the possibility of a Scottish system, in which we already struggle to hold policymakers to account, taking on more responsibilities without a proportionate increase in accountability measures. For example, the Scottish Parliament will have to scrutinize more activity with the same, limited, resources.

The Smith agenda should already prompt us to consider how powers would be used if they were devolved. This is not about the different policy decisions that each party would make with extra powers, which Smith has, appropriately, decided is outside of his remit. Rather, it is about how, for example, new tax and welfare powers interact with already-devolved powers over public services – such as when the devolution of relevant taxes and housing benefit can be linked to housing policy.

Similarly, it is difficult to consider the devolution of greater powers without considering how they will be used – and what effect more devolution would have on Scottish democracy. People already struggle to know who to hold to account in a relatively simple system in which there is a quite-clear list of devolved powers and tax/ welfare powers stay with the UK. We should think more about how we can understand a further devolved system, in which powers are shared across levels and, for example, ministerial accountability to parliament may only scratch the surface of a complex accountability landscape. This aspect of the process may, in principle, appear to be beyond the Smith remit but, in practice, there is no way to separate the long-term constitutional question from the day-to-day democratic question.

I discuss most of these issues in this paper: Cairney Political Quarterly workshop 23.10.14

See also: Public Lecture: ‘Will life go on after the Scottish Independence referendum?’

The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country



Filed under Scottish politics

A Realist’s View of Democracy

Imagine two very different starting points to consider democracy. One is to say that politics is ‘broken’ and that we need to rediscover popular democracy. The other is to say that almost all decisions are made, necessarily, by a very small number of people out of the public spotlight – and that no political reform will change this fact. How might we bring those two points closer together? We should start with Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy (in America – first published 1960; I am using the 1975 version).

Schattschneider’s argument is timeless because he describes (a) a widespread belief in the power of democracy but (b) a disdain for unrealistic expectations about the power of ‘the people’ and (c) a belief that the more realistic vehicle for democracy – government – contains undemocratic elements.  So, he provides a series of warnings against the assumption that there is a simple way to encourage popular democracy:

The beginning of wisdom in democratic theory is to distinguish between the things the people can do and the things the people cannot do. The worst possible disservice that can be done to the democratic cause is to attribute to the people a mystical, magical omnipotence which takes no cognizance of what very large numbers of people cannot do by the sheer weight of numbers. At this point the common definition of democracy has invited us to make fools of ourselves. What 180 million people can do spontaneously, on their own initiative, is not much more than a locomotive can do without rails (1975: 136)

For Schattschneider, the key argument is that a political system can be run well if most decisions are made by the government on behalf of the people, with minimal public involvement, and the very small number of important decisions is made with maximal public involvement. So far, so good (if we ignore the very-problematic idea that ‘the people’ is a real thing and that we can agree on what the most important problems are). The problem is that the political system does not ensure that these issues are the ones most likely to be discussed. On the contrary – a key source of power is to make sure that people pay attention to innocuous issues at the expense of the more important ones.

Schattschneider (1975: 2–5) creates a thought experiment to demonstrate that, in any conflict, the audience could be more important than the original participants. The people matter when they pay attention and become mobilized. Think of two fighters surrounded by a massive crowd – its composition, bias towards each fighter and willingness to engage are crucial. The outcome of conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved. However, there are far more potential conflicts than any public can pay attention to. Therefore, most are ignored and the people are ‘semi-sovereign’ – only able to exercise their power in a few areas.

This is important because there are systematic imbalances in social systems that may require systematic attention. For example, the pressure group system is not pluralistic; a small proportion of the population – the well-educated and upper class – is active and well represented by groups (1975: 34–5). The pressure system is largely the preserve of the business class seeking to minimize attention to their activities (1975: 30–7). Therefore, Schattschneider (1975: 12; 119) highlights the need for government to intervene:

Democratic government is the greatest single instrument for the socialization of conflict … big business has to be matched by … big democracy.

Yet, of course, the same argument applies – elected officials within the government can only pay attention to a small number of issues; they have to promote a few to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest.  This is where one kind of power becomes important – it is exercised to determine the issues most worthy of government attention. The structures of government, such as legislative procedures controlling debate, reinforce this process by determining which conflicts receive attention and which are ignored:

All forms of political organization have a bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others because organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out (1975: 69).

While we may have some vague hope that key decisions receive the most attention, we should not expect it to happen naturally. Rather, groups may exercise power to make sure that important issues do not receive attention. Politics is not only about winners and losers, but also a battle in which the winner seeks to isolate its opponent (by keeping the dispute between them and not a wider audience) and the loser seeks to expand the scope of the conflict by encouraging a part of the audience to become involved. Most political behaviour involves this competition to ‘socialize’ or ‘privatize’ conflict. The most common example may involve keeping an issue off the government agenda by encouraging policymaker attention to relatively ‘safe’ issues – more attention to these issues means less attention to, say, the imbalances of power within society. Another example is when groups exercise power to reinforce public attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, they will not ask the government to intervene.  In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.

If we look at that problem, as I have described it, and conclude that politics is ‘broken’ we should also accept that it cannot be fixed. Or, to put it more positively, we should consider what can be done in that context rather than hoping that political reforms can be a quick fix.  Let’s conclude by thinking of two issues to be addressed. First, can we use existing measures to make sure that ‘the people’ consider the most important issues? We may not agree on what are the most important problems to solve. Maybe the forthcoming in/out referendums in Scotland (in/ out the UK) and the UK (in/out Europe) are good examples, maybe not. Maybe we could generally agree that ‘the economy’ is the big one, without agreeing what we should consider (such as encouraging growth and/ or reducing inequality). Who knows?

The second issue is the one that I think is more of a conundrum: how much attention do you think that we should expect ‘the people’ to pay to the same issue? The thing about public policy is that it involves thousands of decisions, taken hourly or daily when new information arises. We may make one key decision, only to find that we need to make a thousand decisions to inform the substance of that big decision. Do the people just make that big one, or should we expect them to stay involved? Should we expect them to pay attention once per year? Who knows? While this may be starting to sound a bit facetious, it is a serious point that is explored very well by books such as Agendas and Instability. Baumgartner and Jones describe long periods (often several decades) of public inattention to an issue when the assumption is that (a) it received huge attention (b) the problem was ‘solved’ then (c) the details were left to public and private organisations. This process helps explain why the public (a) seemed to support the use of pesticides and nuclear power in the early postwar era, then (b) seemed dead against those things from the 1970s.

It’s at this point in a seminar where I’d say ‘oh look at the time’ rather than try to produce a ‘take home message’ from this discussion because I honestly don’t know what you’d want to take home. Then I’d point out that Jones and Baumgartner were actually optimistic about the links between public opinion and government action and ask you to work that one out.

A lot of this discussion draws on my book Understanding Public Policy, pp 52-6 and the Baumgartner/ Jones chapter is Green Access (Paul Cairney Understanding Public Policy chapter 9 STORRE)


Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy