Notes from a mini-public

January 23, 2020

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by Ben Thurman, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

One of the key themes in a decade of working on societal wellbeing has been the need to open up opportunities for participatory democracy – to shift “from representation to participation”. We know that wellbeing is profoundly affected by our sense of agency and control – we know how important it is that people have a say in the decisions that are made around them. So there was a broader interest in participating in a ‘mini-public’ on Aberdeenshire’s Alcohol and Drugs Strategy than simply its focus on radical kindness.

Without shouting about it – indeed, by their own admission, somewhat ‘under the radar’ – Aberdeenshire Council has begun to integrate deliberative and participatory processes into the way they do things. Having sought out training on ‘Dialogue and Deliberation’ from Oliver Escobar and Wendy Faulkner at the University of Edinburgh, they have run mini-publics on issues like housing allocation, free school meals uptake, local social capital indicators, and, here, alcohol and drugs.

A first reflection on the process, was that it thoroughly challenged the idea that people don’t want to participate in decision-making. Twenty-odd people, giving up consecutive Saturdays, travelling from across Aberdeenshire to learn about and contribute to the Alcohol and Drug Partnership’s approach suggests otherwise – as did the level of engagement in wide-ranging discussions on human rights, kindness, public services and communities.

A second was on the value of a ‘jury approach’ that brought such a range of experiences and perspectives to the issue (as well as the skill of facilitators in creating a safe and inclusive space for all voices to be heard). In a sector where we sometimes risk working from assumptions that certain things are unquestionably right, the mini-public allowed expert witnesses to pause, take a step back, and really interrogate why we believe certain things – kindness, a human rights approach – are important.

This feels significant in a wider environment characterised by falling levels of trust in institutions and media hostility towards public services. Beyond the opportunity to influence decision-making in itself, creating spaces for a conversation about why public sector organisations might work in a particular way, and what the challenges and limitations might be, is surely an important part of rebuilding public confidence.

Similarly, facilitators noted the way that attitudes can change as mini-publics engage more deeply with issues. Providing space for twenty people to consider the lives and experiences of people affected by alcohol and drugs, might not seem significant. But if it builds understanding among people who then take this back to their communities, it might create a ripple that begins to challenge the stigma faced by some of the most vulnerable people in society.

A final thought was on the language and values that underpinned the strategy: that of kindness and human rights. One of the benefits of kindness is that it is universally understood: talking about kindness in social policy breaks down some of the barriers between ‘professional’ and ‘citizen’. It may be a coincidence that Aberdeenshire (and others) are moving away from more ‘professionalised’ terms at the same time as actively thinking about citizen participation. But if one of the parallel effects is to cede a more simple, accessible language, one that everyone can understand and relate to, that must surely be a good thing – for those affected by alcohol and drugs, for those working with them, and for the wider community.