Like most people, I think we have a serious surfeit of elections right now. Despite my sometimes near obsession with all things political, even I am a wee bit scunnered with it all. It was summed up for me by a joke I heard this week; “remember when we used to use polling stations as schools”!
I did remind me though of why, despite my scunneredness, I will be out to vote this week and again next month. Many years ago, in my first time as an election candidate, I found myself outside a polling station in the pouring rain, helping an old lady with mobility difficulties up the steps to the door. Thinking I was being complementary, I said, “It’s very good of you to come out and vote on a day like this”. She drew herself to her full 5 feet, stared at me with an angry look and said, “My mother fought for the right to vote – that’s why I am here, for her”.
Our democratic process is not perfect. It costs too much, and not just in terms of money. We pay a huge price in the way we use an adversarial narrative, especially in social media to have our political conversations; “I’m right so you must not only be wrong but you are a fool for even believing what you believe”, is a paraphrase of many political debates – but only a short way from being a direct quote.
Truth itself is a victim – our narrative is predicated on there only being one absolute truth which each side believes is theirs to possess. Statistics are used as weapons, assigned meaning often only barely tangential to their origin. Human flaws are exposed, unwise choices in a past life become attack points not times of learning.
Yet our democracy remains a deeply valuable part of how we nurture our nation and the communities which are its bedrock. What would be helpful is if we could build in new ways of listening and learning before we make decisions, and if we could make those decisions as close to those most impacted by them.
Democratic participation isn’t just about voting. We know that politics, like everything else in life, is about the quality of relationships between those involved:
Relationships need nurturing
Relationships are built on shared experiences
Relationships grow trust
Relationships sustain all of life, our communities and our nation
One example of a model of how people can participate and influence decisions is called participatory budgeting. It is a method of making sure decisions about how money is spent locally are taken locally. When money is well spent, relationships between the people and decision makers can grow. What is interesting is that by involving far more people, it doesn’t diminish the role of decision makers, in fact it enhances it.
Even in Brazil, where the idea of participatory budgeting began, the neighbourhoods that now, through a long process of many different types of conversations with huge numbers of people, making real budget decisions about those neighbourhoods, still only make decisions on around 10% of the budget. But the priorities that are expressed in those decisions then become the framework for the wider, strategic decisions that shape the other 90% of the budget.
The views of the people are still being heard and the relationship between them and those politicians entrusted with those decisions is enhanced not diminished. The politicians still take the decisions on 90% of the budget, but they do so knowing that they will be held to account if the decisions they take do not reflect those priorities first heard in the neighbourhoods. But when their decisions do reflect those priorities, the people and the politicians begin journeying together rather than having separate experiences, far apart.
There is an appetite for the idea of co-design, of collaboration, of communities at the heart of decision-making and it already happens in many places across Scotland. But it doesn’t happen in enough places, or about enough decisions.
Where it does happen, the connection between the priorities identified in those collaborative experiences and the other strategic decisions that need to be taken, is not always clear or seen to be made. It is ironic for example, that in many ways the one thing that community planning is often seen as not reflecting or being not rooted in is the communities affected by the decisions those partnerships take.
But it can be. It just means a different type of journey to those decisions. It might mean more work in the early stages, but the outcomes, as seen from around the world and in some places in Scotland, are truly revolutionary in the change they bring not just in services but culturally and socially, as well as in the positive ways people’s sense of what it means to be participants in a strong democracy, a democracy that begins with and genuinely is focused on the citizens in whose name it exists.
That’s why I will be at the ballot box this week and next month; it’s what the mother of that old lady voting in the rain fought for. Democracy is too precious to loose even if it does need changed.
3 May 2015