Inviting the Uninvited: a case for thinking positively about participation requests

Do we always see opportunities for co-production when they’re right in front of our nose? This is a question I’ve been increasingly asking myself while doing work around the Community Empowerment Act. In recent months Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC) has been spending quite a lot of time raising awareness of, and gathering learning on, participation requests. These are a new right created by the Act to provide a formal way for people to start a discussion with public bodies about how to improve services.

Around twenty participation requests were made in the year since they came into force, and there seems to have been a bit of a flurry of requests more recently – so the signs are that participation requests are going to be a permanent feature of participation in public services in Scotland. They range from Mount Florida Community Council’s request to Glasgow City Council to have more input into the planning of major events at Hampden Stadium to a request by a group of residents in Lewis and Harris to Western Isles Council around the issue of opening sports facilities on Sundays.

SCDC has been taking an increasing number of phone-calls from community organisations with queries about participation requests. Our guidance and awareness raising has helped groups to take ideas and issues forward with public bodies. Sometimes this has involved making a participation request and, at other times, a formal request has not been required. Either way, there is clearly a desire from community organisations to start a dialogue with public bodies to work towards a common purpose and improve our public services – fertile ground for co-production you would think…

And that’s why it’s a bit concerning to have heard a number of people within public bodies say that they see community groups making participation requests as “a sign of failure.” I can understand that public bodies want to carry out good community engagement and that any approach outside of existing participation channels might be seen as a challenge to this. But isn’t there space for dialogue that is initiated by citizens themselves, and wouldn’t this ensure any resulting co-production of services was genuinely bottom-up?

The distinction between invited and uninvited participation springs to mind – something I first came across at the recent What Works Scotland conference on Empowering Communities and Places. It may be that participation requests straddle between these categories. Whether or not this is the case, if co-production is about shifting power and valuing the contribution of people with lived experience, why does that voice have to wait to be invited?