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Exploring participation

I have been on journey over the last six months thinking about how we can involve and engage people, and I’ve realized that I can’t do it on my own and that I need to do this in a public and supported way. I’m looking to put together a bit of a steering committee to guide this work through. I put this together for them. But in the spirit of transparency thought it would be good to share here as well, and would love to hear any thoughts you’ve got on this.


The challenge that I’ve been thinking about is the cycle of political underrepresentation of those on the margins of society. However if we think about it its not just those on the margins, how many women/people of colour are there in Westminster/Holyrood.

The cycle that we see repeated is that people think that politics doesn't affect or have any influence on their lives and therefore they don't turn out to vote/get involved in Politics. This is demonstrated acutely in Glasgow, which has the highest areas of multiple deprivation in Scotland and consistently has a low voter turnout. Then politicians/policy makers don't listen to/consider peoples needs when making policy, and make policy that adversely affects people living in poverty/women/people of colour's lives disproportionately - think about where the impacts of austerity have been seen the most. This reinforces people’s views that politics isn't for them and therefore they move further away from wanting to engage.

It isn't just about turnout there are other significant factors which affect people's participation.

  • The structures of policy and politics have been designed by elites and are not accessible for people, this is the whole discussion about where does power lie, who holds the power.

  • People have a lack of agency/capacity to engage - why would you go to your local community council meeting, if you’re working three jobs to get food on the table for your children.

  • Finally which isn't to be underestimated is that the challenge of making a difference seems too large and too significant to actually overcome so people choose not to engage.

I believe that there has to be a way to break this cycle and change engagement. I don't have all the answers but I think that we have to start now before people feel so disengaged that they cannot make a difference at all.


For me this comes from a lens or focus on poverty reduction, taking a capability approach to poverty, or thinking specifically about political freedom as defined by Sen. I believe that whilst there are other activities that will contribute to poverty reduction, unless we make sure that people are involved in decisions that affect their lives they won’t be able to fully move out of poverty.


I don’t have the answer to how we break this cycle. I’ve been grappling with it in different forms for years. But I think that we need to start to have a debate about how we can change this and what this could look like.

I want to start a debate bringing together, people living in poverty, those not traditionally engaged in decision making, policy makers, politicians, community groups, academics to create a new paradigm for political engagement. This project will start with a process of a conversation experimenting with innovative ways of participation and then finding models that can be rolled out in different areas and at scale.

This project will also consider whether there are innovative ways of engaging people in service delivery making sure that they can have a say over services that are being delivered. For example how are care givers and care receivers involved in the debate about reforming Health and Social Care, how are those who receive benefits and those who work on the frontline in a job center involved in designing a new social security system for Scotland.

I believe that in order to break this cycle of underrepresentation, we need to come together to find answers. This isn’t just about me or my journey, it’s about bringing together lots of people to have the discussion. I think that the answers are out there but they have to come from all of us coming together rather than me sitting down on my own.

I think this probably ends in setting up an organisation that champions and furthers good participation and shifts the way that people are involved and engaged in decisions that affect their lives. However at this stage, I’m not sure what this looks like it could be think/do tank, a consultancy organisation, an advocacy organisation. There are lots a questions of what kind of organisation does it want to be, is a coop, is it self managed, who else is involved in the organisation and how does it come together.

What else is happening?

There is definitely a movement for change, participatory budgeting, universal income, discussions of inclusive growth, local community projects however there is nothing that is happening at scale and nothing that is changing the whole system of how we engage with politics and policy making and nothing with a real focus on poverty reduction and how we involve or start with those who are struggling the most.

What's the next step?

I want to try to think radically about how to do this and where this could come from. Its about putting participation at its core. I’m proposing an extended public participation/consultation engagement process that asks some of those questions and explores some of the answers whilst thinking about how an organisation could evolve from it. It does this over the summer of 2017 with an event happening in October 2017 to bring it all together and then think through the next steps.

I want to use the time between July and September to start to have a public debate about this issue. I want to do this through blogging/videos/meetings and discussions this will cover a mixture of both practical and theoretical examples, involving a wide range of stakeholders and people who are struggling to engage. If this is about creating a new model of engagement then it needs to start from that basis of involving people in understanding the problem and the possible solution.

Some specific questions I will look are

  • What do people see as the main challenges of political engagement

  • What is happening already, in Scotland, the UK and more globally (see google sheet)

  • Where is there good practice

  • If I was to bring a team together to try and tackle this, who would that be

  • If I was to set up an organisation to tackle this, what would that organisation look like, is there a possible business model

I would then plan on running an event/un-conference in October to share the research and look more at what the next steps/solutions could be. I’ve put together a google doc with who I think I need to talk to and an approximate timeline

What about the money?

This is the bit that I’m really not sure about and is partly why I’ve been hesitating about moving to this project for a while. I can’t see an obvious enterprise/funding route for this. However I think it’s important to start and explore the opportunities and can self finance this until October.

I would love any thoughts on this, what have I got right, what have I got wrong, what am I missing, who else should I be speaking to etc.