Nesta Democracy Pioneers

Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.

At Fife Council we are developing a new democratic system for Fife which will enable local people to have a greater say in decisions about the allocation of mainstream service budgets. It is the first and largest mainstream Participatory Budgeting (PB) process to date in the UK and is unique in its blending of the use of mini-publics within a Participatory Budgeting process.

In recent years, local councils have been under increasing pressure to continue to deliver services with decreasing budgets. They are being asked to make increasingly difficult choices the outcomes of which have significant impacts on local citizens. Creating space for public deliberation can create a better public understanding of the investment that Fife Council makes in local public services and how Council resources are allocated. It will also help to make Council decisions and policy choices better informed and meet the needs of local communities, rebuilding trust as communities better appreciate the complexity that influences local decision making.

National support for democratic innovation

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 provided new powers to strengthen the voices of communities in Scotland in decisions that matter to them. In October 2017, COSLA and the Scottish Government agreed a Community Choices Budgeting 1% framework agreement which challenged each local authority in Scotland to set at least 1% of its annual budget through participatory budgeting by 2021.

Fife is leading the way in mainstreaming Participatory Budgeting (PB) in Scotland with Let's Talk about Transporting People, an engagement process around the £22 million passenger transport services budget (school transport, demand responsive transport, concessionary travel, subsidised bus services).

The approach is based around a four stage framework for public engagement:

  1. DISCOVER what is working well
  2. DREAM about how things could be, what will be needed in the future
  3. DESIGN TOGETHER through bringing a representative group of people together, ie through a Citizens’ Jury, to deliberate on options
  4. DECIDE where options will go forward for a public vote.

The idea is that this approach can be applied to other areas of the Council’s mainstream service budget in the future.

Across Scotland, COSLA will also continue to work with Local Government to strengthen the relationship between PB and the participatory democracy agenda more broadly, including the Local Governance Review to support local authorities to embed participation and deliberation within local recovery activity. This engagement and support has been invaluable in allowing us to innovate in designing the participatory processes.

Filing out surveys on public transport in Fife, with citizens

Innovation processes that are adaptive to change

As part of the National Support Programme for participatory budgeting, COSLA and the Scottish Government have been supporting local authorities to develop digital tools for PB based on open source software, Consul. This has provided Fife with a new online participation platform that extends and enhances traditional community engagement. Developing the platform has been particularly timely as things have moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has impacted considerably on the operation and viability of passenger transport services. This has resulted in the Let's Talk about Transporting People process being paused in April 2020 for a minimum of six months. Public confidence in using public transport is likely to be affected for some time to come as a result of social distancing measures.

In response to the pandemic however, Fife Council has identified 14 priority areas for Reform and Recovery planning, one of which is transport. This widens the scope of what the Council will be considering and which is led by renewed focus and commitment from elected members to support service re-design and local recovery activity with participatory methods an integral part of this. Despite having to rethink the process, we believe that the continued commitment to participatory methods will strengthen the recovery in Fife.

In the next 5 years we would like participatory budgeting to have become an established mechanism for involving people in decisions about mainstream service budgets that is valued by people in our local communities. To do this, we need to be innovative in how we create deliberative spaces and imagine new opportunities for people to have their say in decisions in their local area.

Designing the tools is one thing, but making sure that they are used well requires a true change in our democratic and social culture. I’d like to see participatory design being more community led. This means that Councils need to rethink how they support and enable communities in this process and be continually adaptive to our changing circumstances. Part of the challenge is creating the conditions for people to be open to doing things in a different way but also experimenting with innovations to make them relevant and accessible to local communities.


Coryn Barclay

Research Consultant for Fife Council