15 November 2016

Participation and representation in Scotland’s third sector interfaces – a new model?

What Works Scotland has been working with the third sector to develop a vision to re-imagine community planning in Scotland. 

Here Jane Cullingworth, a What Works Scotland PhD student, reports on how this process has contributed to a new model of third sector representation, now being piloted by Strive in East Lothian.  

Strive is one of Scotland's 32 third sector interfaces (TSIs), serving East Lothian.

One of the TSI's roles is to represent the third sector in community planning. This representation role is a challenging one. How does one organisation speak on behalf of an entire sector, particularly a sector that is very diverse and holds many perspectives?

One way is for third sector organisations to speak on behalf of themselves directly – a model that Strive is piloting.

How was the model developed?

The history of how this model emerged is important.

Back in 2014 TSIs participated in COSLA's Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, identifying the importance of innovative participative mechanisms.

 This paved the way for a two-day deliberative dialogue forum in 2015 where TSIs came together to deepen the conversation about sector governance in community planning. Two interconnected issues were identified: participation and representation.

TSIs grappled with how they could facilitate better participation by third sector organisations in discussing issues and positions, and in how these positions could be represented in a transparent way in various partnerships and community forums.

A clear challenge was identified. If TSIs were to demand greater accountability and transparency from statutory partners, how could they demonstrate a high standard of transparency with their own stakeholders?

Strive decided to take on this challenge, working with Oliver Escobar of What Works Scotland to host a series of 'bacon butty blethers' to explore the following questions with third sector organisations in East Lothian:

  • How should the third sector be represented, by who, where?
  • When does the sector need representation and how is this decided?
  • How do we ensure all third sector organisations are able to participate?
  • What mechanisms should underpin this representation?

The process was initiated at Strive's 2015 annual conference, followed by extensive outreach to a wide range of organisations across East Lothian.

Over the course of almost a year, 29 organsations participated in the process which comprised three workshops and an online phase.
The first workshop engaged people in mapping the issues and identifying a vision for Strive in 2020.

Participants developed a vision of a representative Strive - one in which the third sector voice was heard, a membership engaged, a clear purpose identified, transparent representation methods and processes understood, and the outcomes of participation shared.

The second workshop focused on developing proposals, and the third on refining them.  Four proposals were developed:

  1. Creating an online platform to support engagement between third sector organisations to improve coordination, discussion and representation
  2. Developing a membership system for third sector participation and representation
  3. Mapping who represents the third sector across East Lothian
  4. A coordinated system to improve third sector representation and impact across East Lothian
An online phase took place between June and August to respond to the four proposals developed.

Overall there was strong support for a mapping of what representation opportunities exist across East Lothian and who is currently doing what. There was also considerable support to create a coordinated system to strengthen third sector representation, building on the mapping exercise.

Introducing the new model

Eliot Stark and Oliver Escobar presenting at the Strive annual conference 2016
Eliot Stark and Oliver Escobar at the Strive annual conference 2016
At Strive's annual conference in September, chief executive Eliot Stark presented the organisation's implementation plan based on the community's recommendations.

In a radical change to the current model, Strive invited the sector to become delegates in existing community partnerships, taking over Strive's role in representing the community. The term delegate is used to reflect that individuals have less autonomy and more accountability than representatives.
"The voice will be through the delegates… we are not interpreting voice; the voice is your voice." 
Eliot Stark,  Strive chief executive 

The role of Strive then will shift to facilitating and supporting the process, creating appropriate mechanisms to enable third sector organisations to identify themselves and to elect delegates, aiding in the development of a Code of Conduct, hosting quarterly meetings, and providing training to delegates.

Strive's decision to pilot a new model of representation is certainly a bold one. Third sector organisations in East Lothian now have a key role to play in developing, testing and refining these new ideas in practice.

There will be much to learn from this experiment in East Lothian – for practitioners and academics alike. It is certainly an example of devolution in practice.

Read the report

The report, Third Sector Participation and Representation in East Lothian, written by Oliver Escobar and Jane Cullingworth from What Works Scotland, is available on the STRiVE website.

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