In its recent interim report, the Commission on Highland Democracy reveals its discoveries based on online consultations and public meetings on questions of local governance and civic engagement across the region.
Amid reflections on localism that led, among other decisions, to the Community Empowerment Act of 2015, a survey led by the Highland Council’s Citizen panel revealed that while a high proportion of the population expressed interest in local democracy, only 18% felt that they had ‘any influence over decision making.’ Springing from ‘an appetite for greater involvement’ in the democratic process among local communities, the Commission was set up in September 2016. Its interim report highlights the communities’ desire for a better understanding of the decision making processes by local authorities, but also for a more sustained engagement with their local representatives.
The Commission underscores five key elements to tackle the perceived lack in local democracy:
1. ‘Decision making is exclusive’
The Commission highlights a qualitative, rather than geographical perception of decentralisation and centralisation. ‘People’, the Commission says,’consider decision making to be centralised not because it takes place a long distance from them. Rather, they feel that centralisation occurs when a small group of highly empowered individuals take decisions in a way that has little reference to anybody outside the decision making group and in an exclusive way.’
2. ‘People want involvement and engagement’
Based on its findings, the Commission determined that people wanted ‘ongoing’ ‘involvement and engagement’ with decision makers on issues affecting their daily lives.
3. Empowered Consumers
The Commission indicates that respondents ‘want to be empowered consumers of services and decisions rather than deliverers or decision makers themselves’. However, while they value their elected and appointed representatives to make final decisions ‘on important and difficult matters’, people expect a more open decision-making process.
4. Integrated Local Democracy
The report also highlights a wish for continuous ‘engagement and involvement in the democratic process’. ‘Conversations about community aspirations, public services and infrastructure’ that are taking place among the Highland communities should be ‘used in decision making’, instead of organising ‘separation consultation exercise’ that are less likely to attract participation.
5. Balanced decision making
‘Communities hold the view that for good decisions to be made there is a necessary balance between three different inputs.’ These should be ‘high quality professional officer advice’, ‘the role of the elected and appointed decision makers’ and ‘a strong element of community input.’
Click here for the full interim report.