Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Once upon a time… a story of community non engagement – Douglas Flett

Here is a real story. It is not a management fix, a leadership theory, nor political rhetoric. The story starts in a Business Association, far, far away – South Queensferry actually, a distant outpost from Edinburgh’s City Chambers.

Queensferry is a delightful town with a beautiful High Street, albeit subject to excess traffic, noise and carbon particulates. This Royal Burgh boasts the 16th century Black House and the trendy Orocco Pier, a picturesque harbour and now, three impressive bridges.

In 2002, with the close involvement of the Community Council and community groups, the Association presented our community vision for the town to the Councillors and Officers of the City of Edinburgh Council. It was warmly received and, as a result, the City undertook to work alongside the community to help realise this local vision.

Fast forward to 2009. The chair of the Community Council, and me for the business body, met someone from Victoria Quay who was to develop the Scottish Government’s initiative, “Community Engagement”. We described to him the years of disappointment, frustration, false dawns, departmental change, staff changes, delays and the inability of the various city silos to work together.

The bottom line was that, for us, the local authority was structurally incapable of practical engagement with a community.

Admittedly, Councils have been through turbulent times. Most have enormous debt and significant challenges. Yet the need for Councils to engage with communities is paramount. What is the problem?

One reason is that Local Government seems to follow the same bad habits of central government (Holyrood and Westminster). Power is being centralised into a smaller number of hands – whether they meet in Downing Street, Charlotte Square or the few who dominate discussion in Council Chambers across the land. These individuals are spread too thinly over too many important tasks. They do not have sufficient time and they can, as the pressure of governing accumulates, begin to believe in their infallibility the more the media displays their celebrity.

Secondly, the system is broken because relationships and integrity are broken. For Government to adjust and properly interface with the ‘relational’ mode of the community, it must sort out its internal relationships. Society desperately needs to engage and empower its communities for the common good. We need to work together, respectfully and cooperatively. But first, politicians need to be PC with one another – personally caring (not politically correct). Leaders in government and in parties need good relationships for consensual governance. Society is sick and tired of leadership squabbles, personal bickering and the party dominance of post truth politics.

Engagement is first about relationship, not systems. Government is focused upon structured control and relational coercion. When politicians relate poorly with one another, then that model of behaviour filters down through the departments and ultimately to staff.

Relationships, integrity and good values affect the structure performance of government. In Queensferry we experienced the systemic failure of local government to deliver agreed objectives. What we all currently experience throughout the UK is a lack of integrity demonstrated through the behaviour of those in government.

Third factor – a fatherly word: When Tam Dalyell stepped down as Father of the House at Westminster, he lamented a change during his decades of public service. He said that when he joined the House, most MPs had a profession, a business background or other rich experience of life. By contrast, when he left he observed that most members were career politicians; many graduated to became researchers or perform some political function before becoming MPs.

He observed that the aggregate experience and wisdom of the House had considerably diminished over the years.

Three areas to fix: 

  1. The structures of government need to become more inclusive. They must bring decision making and envisioning to the community. This means de-centralised power.
  1. The leaders of government need to model good relationships, transparency and humility.
  1. The members of government need more experience and have proven integrity and wisdom.

To clarify, by humility I mean someone who knows their strengths and weaknesses and is content for both to be known. Wisdom is the best use of information and knowledge for the common good, even when it comes from another party.


Douglas Flett is a National Networker for the  Scottish City and Community Networks