In 2017, the Marr Community Planning Group decided to test a new approach to participatory budgeting: a mini-public. Over two days, a representative group of citizens deliberated on the allocation of £28,000.
Problems and Purpose
Participatory budgeting has become an important tool for community engagement and for developing participatory democracy in Scotland. Despite the aspiration for communities to have greater powers to influence local decision-making, rural areas such as North Marr in Aberdeenshire continue to suffer from challenges to improving participation and collaboration across rural settlements. In 2017, the Marr Community Planning Group decided to test a new approach to participatory budgeting - a mini public. This method entails inviting a demographically representative sample of the wider population to deliberate over an important issue. In this case the decision was how to spend a budget to improve health and well-being in the area potentially through community activity. The challenges of hosting a mini-public in North Marr were typical of most rural populations in Scotland, including lack of transport, venue availability, and communication, alongside more subtle barriers like public perception and confidence. The purpose of the mini-public was to decide on how to use £28,000 which had been allocated for improving health and well-being. The source of funds were £25,000 from Aberdeenshire Health & Social Care Partnership (Scottish Governments Peoples Choice Funding) and £3,000 from the Marr Community Planning Group.
Background History and Context
The idea for trialling a mini-public approach to participatory budgeting arose from training delivered by the research collaboration 'What Works Scotland' to community development officers in Aberdeenshire. The basic project design was proposed and agreed to through the Marr Community Planning Group, who then presented the proposal to Joint Area Meeting which included various officers and elected members. The Marr Area Partnership, who lead the project on behalf of the Marr Community Planning Group, then invited representatives from community associations and community councils across their whole area to a meeting to introduce the concept of widening participation in decision making through a mini-public in Marr. This diverse group of community organisations were tasked with identifying common needs and potential solutions and projects based on the aspirations of the partnership to improve health and well-being and the priorities of the Marr Community Plan.
In total 5 applications were submitted for consideration by the mini public under the following themes:
· Connected Communities; Community Transport (£14,000)
· Community Support to Vulnerable People (£28,000)
· Outdoor classrooms (£28,000)
· North Marr Community Paths Network (£28,000)
· Maximising Income Maximising Opportunities (£14,000)
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project was initiated and funded by the The Marr Community Planning Group, Aberdeenshire Health & Social Care Partnership, and Scottish Governments Peoples Choice Fund. Original training which inspired the project was through What Works Scotland, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Scottish Government.
Partners in the project included Marr Area Partnership-Lead Partner, Community Planning-Aberdeenshire Council, CLD, Aberdeenshire Health & Social Care Partnership (AHSCP), AVA, MAP, Marr Area Committee, MCPG, Corgarff Hall Association, Strathdon Community Association, Glenbuchat Hall Association, Glenkindie & Towie Community Association, Lumsden Community Association, Rhynie Charitable Trust, Gartly Community Association, Tap O’ North Community Council and Donside Community Council.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The aim was to perform a mini-public featuring participants who were geographically diverse, and who were not already involved in community planning activities. The decision to offer childminding, transport support, and a small financial reward mitigated many of the usual barriers to participation. This fitted the overall goal of looking to widen participation in decision making by recruiting a funding panel who were not self-selected, and therefore had no bias towards other political activities. There was an open call for expressions of interest for funding of £14,000 – 28,000, and Marr Area Partnership worked with Aberdeenshire Council to commission a market research company to recruit a sample of the community who fulfilled the required descriptive demographics according to age, sex etc.
In total, eleven participants were recruited and took part in two days of deliberation. The facilitators agreed that the demographic and geographic spread of participants was impressive, and that the mini-public ‘felt’ like a different group to the usual community engagement attendees. None of the participants had previously been involved in community planning activities or were members of community associations, community councils or other representative bodies. When asked on day 1 ‘Have you been involved in decision making about budgets or services before?’ , ten out of eleven participants said no.
Methods and Tools Used
The mini-public process entailed two facilitated dialogue and deliberation sessions. Participants were evaluated via confidential forms which were filled in by panel members at the end of each session, and the use of a confidential sliding scale exercise. This involved a combination of quantitative and qualitative questions allowing for a mixed-methods analysis.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
A lead facilitator employed by the area partnership designed the process and explained the process to participants on the day. Having three qualified, trained, and experienced facilitators allowed the organisers to make small but appropriate adjustments to the planned process on the day. The mini-public process entailed two facilitated dialogue and deliberation sessions. The facilitators observed that the dialogue between participants was extremely rich, including deep dialogue around the complex needs of the community. The deliberation followed the dialogue smoothly with good consensus. The participants in the mini-public were recognised as being different from the usual participants in consultations and other activities, but this made it easier in some ways to facilitate good discussion. This randomly selected group, who were from widely different backgrounds and had not selected themselves to take part, were more amenable to well-functioning deliberation than self-selected participants might have been. There was an overall ‘good feeling’ amongst facilitators and participants, who felt that the process was fair and represented the wider community (see Marr PB Mini public evaluation report).
At the end of the process, 100% of participants agreed ‘to an extent’ that they contributed to the decision, agreed with the decision and understood why the decision was made. Ten of the participants stated ‘quite a lot’ to ‘very much’ in response to all these questions and with the remaining respondent selecting ‘somewhat’. None of the participants said that they were unable to express their views or failed to work together effectively. Not only did all participants report that they had learnt from one another, at least two members stated that they changed their minds on spending priorities despite arriving with a clear view of their preferred decision (see Marr PB Mini public evaluation report).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The key outcome was that participants, facilitators and organisers agreed that the mini-public was successful, and a viable community decision-making method. It also demonstrated that it is possible to include rural participants in this type of community engagement activity. There was a consensus among participants, both about the decision itself and their positive opinion about the process. The lead facilitator concluded that the mini public-method should be considered as a valuable tool for widening public participation in local decision-making. The Community Planning team in Marr was supportive of further trialling the mini public approach.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The trial showed that the mini-public method is an effective tool for decision-making that helps to address the bias inherent in methods that rely on participants volunteering themselves. This method of dialogue and deliberation led to decisions that were assessed as being of good quality. Panel members reported a high level of considered thought and a willingness to take on wider perspectives than their own, evidenced by changes in expressed preferences. They were able to provide valuable contributions by bringing their own local perspectives into the discussions and having their opinion and expertise heard. The decision in this case was essentially an options appraisal between a number of distinct projects that could be funded, but the trial has shown that this method could be considered at an even earlier stage of assessing need and designing solutions. However, it is essential that the facilitation of deliberation and decision-making is robust for the decision-making procedure to be effective.
The trial was not without limitations. This method requires a high level of design and facilitation. The lead facilitator stated that there were undisclosed barriers requiring a degree of adjustments to account for group dynamics and undisclosed barriers to participation on the day. This highlighted the requirement for skilled and well-trained facilitators, without whom the process would have been disrupted by these barriers and hence less successful. Further, the Mini-Public Panel came up with a clear consensus at the final deliberation stage, so it is not possible to say how the rest of the process might have gone had the consensus been less clear. It could be speculated that the clear consensus at the deliberation stage derived from the quality of dialogue, but consensus will not always be possible in every case.
Offering financial rewards was effective; half of the panel reported that the financial incentive was an important factor in their decision to take part. Over a third of participants said that they had been nervous about attending the first session, however, no one expressed this view this on the second day, which showed that exposure to the process increased confidence about participation. All of panel members felt they were able to express their views, learnt from what other people said and worked well together.
The original submission of this case entry was written by Derry Keohane on behalf of What Works Scotland, with input from Claire Bynner (What Works Scotland). It has since been edited and built upon by the Participedia community and does not necessarily reflect the views of Derry Keohane, What Works Scotland, or Claire Bynner.
Aberdeenshire Community Planning Partnership Community Engagement and Participation Guide http://www.ouraberdeenshire.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/CPP-ENGAGEMENT-GUIDE-October-2017-1.pdf
Aberdeenshire Community Learning and Development Plan https://learningcommunitypartnershipsaberdeenshire.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/cld-plan-2018-003.pdf
Lead image: Marr Area Partnership/Facebook, https://goo.gl/mwLwkD