Defining Scotland’s priorities through public participation

September 24, 2015

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Written by Lauren Pennycook, Policy Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Back in 2007 the Scottish Government developed a ground-breaking approach to measuring the wellbeing of its people through its National Performance Framework.  And now that the Scottish Parliament has legislated for the Scottish Government to consult the people of Scotland on the national outcomes it seeks to achieve through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, Scotland is among international examples of good practice of wellbeing measurement. But with this opportunity comes the challenge of how the Scottish Government should undertake such an extensive exercise in public engagement and consult citizens from Durness to Dumfries on their priorities for Scotland.

Our international evidence has found that different approaches are taken to measuring the wellbeing of citizens around the world, including how the public were consulted in the development of national outcomes and indicators. For example, to establish the Canadian Index on Wellbeing, the Canadian Policy Research Networks surveyed Canadians about what mattered to them and their families, while in the City of Guelph citizens’ priorities were identified through telephone town hall meetings; a ‘workshop in a box’ tool for community leaders to conduct local conversations; and a Photovoice project, through which residents used photography to research being well in their neighbourhoods.

Closer to home, the People’s Conversation, a partnership project between The Wheel and the Carnegie UK Trust, has convened a number of Conversation Groups, comprising 12-15 members each from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, to hold a series of conversations centred around what shapes citizens’ future in Ireland and what citizens expect, and what is expected of them. The recent The Wales We Want, a national conversation on a vision for Wales, engaged the public by signing up a network of Futures Champions to host conversations in existing groups and through events and social media activity. While the Scottish Government’s own Participation Week and the Creating a Fairer Scotland discussions offer valuable learning about what works in engaging the Scottish public.

So with a population of 5.3 million people, and a framework currently made up of 16 national outcomes and 61 indicators to refresh, how might the Scottish Government approach this extensive exercise in public engagement?  As the Trust has repeatedly argued for the importance of public engagement in developing the National Performance Framework as a means and an end to greater wellbeing, we explored how to facilitate community conversations on what is needed to live a good life at an individual, community and national level in Scotland.

We commissioned Blake Stevenson to develop a wellbeing toolkit and to pilot its use with two community groups in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh. The toolkit was made up of four elements – an exploration of wellbeing as a concept; what wellbeing means to participants on a personal level; what wellbeing may mean to others; and what the Scottish Government could do to promote wellbeing at a national level. And after a pilot with just two community groups, valuable insights were already gained into the process of public engagement on wellbeing, and potential gaps in the National Performance Framework.

The concept of ‘wellbeing’ proved to be a valuable catalyst for discussion, with participants quickly grasping the inadequacy of income as a measure of success for them personally, and for their country.  Instead, participants raised the importance of strong personal relationships; civic spirit; good quality local environment; good quality employment; volunteering; good physical and mental health; and safety in the ability to live well. The use of visuals to aid the discussion and the option of completing the exercises online were welcomed by the participants, which will be important learning in how the Scottish Government considers an inclusive approach to its national conversation.

With the implementation of the Community Empowerment Act, likely in 2016, comes an opportunity for the new Scottish Government to prioritise citizen participation. And there is no more important issue to consult on than how the country measures its progress.  Only through meaningful, ambitious and inclusive discussions on the scale of the national conversations seen in the Wales We Want can the Scottish Government develop a framework which reflects the challenges and opportunities faced by individuals and communities, and identify how to achieve the economic, social, environmental and democratic outcomes we all seek.