Using the pandemic to increase public participation in debates and decision-making

Tea & Talk
Publication Date
Talat Yaqoob FRSE
Louise Macdonald OBE FRSE
Tea & Talk Podcast Cover
Tea and Talk with the RSE
Using the pandemic to increase public participation in debates and decision-making

Launching the third series of the RSE’s Tea and Talk Podcast, Talat Yaqoob and Louise Macdonald OBE look at how the public has been informed and engaged during the Covid-19 pandemic and how we can build on this experience to improve both public debate and participation in decision-making.

Talat is a Scottish campaigner and writer focused on women’s equality, race equality and intersectional analysis of policy. Louise is National Director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland, former Chief Executive of Young Scot and among many other roles is Co-Chair of the National Advisory Council of Women and Girls.

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Episode transcript

Please note transcripts are automatically generated so may feature errors

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:00:00] So today I’m speaking with Talat Yaqoob and Louise [00:01:00] McDonald who have been leading a strand of the RSE’s Post-Covid Futures Commission, looking at how the public has been informed and engaged during the Covid crisis and how we can build on this experience to improve both public debate and participation in decision-making.

Talat is a Scottish campaigner and writer focused on women’s equality, race equality, and intersectional analysis of policy. And Louise is currently Chief Executive of Young Scot, although she moves to a new post heading up the Institute of Directors in Scotland over the summer, and among many other roles is Co-Chair of the National Advisory Council of Women and Girls.

So who better than Talat and Lousie to speak to us today about public debate and participation? So Talat and Louise, you’ve both got incredibly busy day jobs. So what attracted you to get involved in the Commission and most specifically in this strand of work and, and maybe Talat I could come to you first?

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:01:54] Well, hello. I think the things that have attracted me to this is over the course [00:02:00] of the pandemic, the issue around public participation and equal say in the decisions that are made , for us on our behalf, has become even more critical. And I think it’s, it’s become a, a much higher prioritized conversation than it has been previously.

And the same with, you know, misinformation and the spread of it becoming not, not just a democratic issue, but also a public health issue now. These are both things I’ve been interested in for a significant period of my career. So it makes sense. And it was a great opportunity to be asked to take part in this and be able to come up with some solid solutions, some ideas, innovative ways forward for us to not just talk about this, but to do something differently.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:02:46] Thank you Talat. And what about you Louise?

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:02:48] Well, first of all, thank you. I’m delighted to be here and with you both. And I suppose in some ways quite similar to Talat, which will come as kind of, no surprise, I suppose. And [00:03:00] the the issues in particular around how people, and from my perspective, how young people have been involved in, in some of the discussion and the decision making around the pandemic, I think is…

is something we need to talk about a lot more and explore that in a bit more detail and, and see what we can learn from that. But also the work that Young Scot does is essentially around youth information and access to high quality information to help young people make informed decisions and choices in their lives as they’re growing up.

So that issue around: information, where people get information from, fake news, information literacy, is something that personally and professionally I’m really passionate about. So the opportunity to explore that, but to explore that with access to the incredible cohort of Fellows that, that the RSE has and the expertise that the RSE has…

But also then being able to use that as a way to reach out much more [00:04:00] broadly and to speak to a whole range of kinda, different kinda communities about those issues. I just thought it was a, an incredible opportunity and a piece of work that I was really honoured to be part of.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:04:11] And it’s been great having you both on board and bringing all your expertise and experience as part of that.

I mean Talat, you were just saying there that you, you, you obviously, you both got a passion in people’s involvement in decision-making, whether those are young people or, or across the piece and Talat you were saying it’s become more of a priority you think that equal same decision-making over the course of the pandemic.

Can you say a little bit more about that? Why, why is it more important now than it was previously? If I can put it in those terms?

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:04:38] Yeah, sure. So of course it’s always important, but. In in the, in the yet last year of the pandemic decisions had to be made quickly. And what tends to happen when decisions are made quickly is that the consultation processes that we rely on there isn’t capacity to do those.

So if that’s the case, we need to start thinking about alternative methods, [00:05:00] faster paced methods of participation, and equally we need a population of society that is well informed on the issues to be able to participate quickly. And it’s really brought to light that neither of those things exist. And I really question, if you don’t have a well-informed public, do you have a fully functioning democracy?

And you know, that’s a bit of a rhetorical question because my answer is no, but the, but the reality here is that we, we picked up the pace on decisions that needed to be made and that was absolutely fine, but some of those decisions are about our freedoms. They are about our liberties and a lot of them are about our…

our public health. And if you, if you talk to disabled people’s organizations, the impact that’s had, particularly on people with learning disabilities and people with chronic illness, the, the demand, the diminishing of their independence. Has happened as a consequence of people making decisions on their behalf to pick up the pace and do things for them rather than with them.

So [00:06:00] if that can happen so quickly, it shows how superficial our participatory methods, our partnership, and, you know, our measures of equality are so we have to go much further in making this a fully embedded venture… participation as a fully embedded venture, because right now I think the pandemic has revealed how superficial some of our methods of participation are.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:06:22] That’s, that’s really interesting. And is that something you’ve seen Louise with relation to young people? Have you seen that sort of the methods that have been used maybe more traditionally, really not cutting through or are being sort of found wanting if you like?

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:06:35] Yeah. I mean, I think that there’s probably a couple of things I would say in reflecting on that.

I mean, I think. I would actually start with the positive and that actually, I think Scotland is in a better place than it has been. Say, maybe seeing five or five or more years ago in terms of young people in their participation, in decision-makers and decision-making. And there’s a couple of reasons from that.

But the first is, is the Year of [00:07:00] Young People in 2018. Really created a … what was a catalyst, I suppose, for a significant change, particularly amongst policymakers and public bodies as well, but how they involved young people in decision-making and we saw significant work in that year. And taking place with organizations, maybe doing that for the first time with young people.

But what that meant was that door was opened and it can’t be closed again. So the, the from the Year of Young People in 2018, it’s now, if you are doing any kind of work with young people, you won’t get very far until someone says, have you actually spoken to young people about this? And in my career, because I’ve been doing this for a long time, that didn’t used to happen.

You used to get quite far along the process before you ever ask that question. So that door actually was opened and we also have the, and the incorporation of the UN convention on the rights of the child. Now happening [00:08:00] in Scotland this year we hope. And so. That in itself then sets that, you know, will set this legal framework to involve young people in policy and decision-making so whilst of course there are lots of areas that could be improved, we have a kind of a, both a set of conditions and kind of a framework and about to be a legal framework that really supports that work to ensure that young people are at the heart of it. The issue during the pandemic of course, was that a lot of that had to be done digitally with young people and what it exposed,

as of course the pandemic exposed so many inequalities -what it exposed was digital inequality, but interestingly, and I think the challenge for a lot of people was it challenged the myth, that all young people are digital natives and are connected 24 seven. So everybody was like, Oh, well, young people, they’re all on their phones, they’re all fine.

It will be fine. That’ll be great. And just do it [00:09:00] digitally. And of course that’s not the case. There is a significant digital gap for young people, whether that’s in terms of access to wifi or broadband, whether it’s kit. Or whether it’s the actual understanding of digital tools, the more, you know, it can’t just be assumed that all young people are completely savvy.

With digital tools, most young people, you know, are surviving on free wifi. You know, they’re roaming the free wifi hotspots. They know where they are. You ask any teenager they’ll know where a free wifi spot is in the local community, we can’t expect every young person to have a parent or carer who can buy them a data package.

And so I’ll be, I’ll be honest. That’s something that those that worked with young people for a while have recognised, but it’s often been hard to get others to acknowledge that, or even accept that to be true. And so suddenlym, you know, that was just really exposed as people suddenly thought: Oh, hang on. This is not, kinda the case.

[00:10:00] And so I think. My hope is that as the actually, you know, from the learning that we might be able to do from there is that we do kinda move in terms of our engagement methodologies, and try to build systems that are fully inclusive and don’t make those inequalities gaps any wider, you know, we have to be closing that gap, eliminating it completely.

But really making sure that at the very least that what we don’t do is make them even wider. And that applies in particular for us around young people digitally I think.


Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:10:34] I was just gonna

come on to that. And I think that there was one thing, things I was just struck by when you, you talking there about the digital divide, but I guess it plays to that broader point about, there are some people who are better able or more enabled to take part in part to participate than, than others for whatever reason.

So, so what are your sort of top tips, if you like for inclusive engagement and participation, what does that look like?

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:10:57] So from our point of view, I would say [00:11:00] it’s about starting where young people are and starting earlier, starting way earlier in the process than people ever think they should. I think possibly we’ve too often seen participation engagement coming at a point where…

You know, some of the rules and boundaries have already been set and where we would actually always say, if you’re grappling with an issue and you’re looking to, to co-designer a response to that issue. Then share it at the point where it’s really messy and you don’t really know what to do, you know, rather than waiting and saying ‘we need to define the question’, et cetera.

So there’s a piece for me for going as early as possible, doing it on, on young people’s kinda – I’m talking from a young people’s perspective – very much on their terms. There’s a piece about recognizing that they are experts when they arrive within the kind of process because they’re experts of their own experience.

And so you know, that kind of parity of their experience of expertise is incredibly important. And [00:12:00] to ensure that you’re kinda building that in. And also I think doing all that we can, and we work with a whole range of different organizations, to operate on a principle of inclusive by design.

So, you know, absolutely making sure that it’s inclusive for , for absolutely everyone means it will be better for everyone as well. So, so having that as an operating principle, I think, I mean, design and design thinking has a huge amount to contribute to how we consider participation in coproduction I think, which is why it’s been such a growing area of interest and expertise.

And, but that kind of, you know, inclusive by design principles is central to it, I would say.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:12:42] Thanks Louise. And what about for you Talat? Cause that’s obviously been a core thread of your work for many years now as well, that inclusivity of process and practice.

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:12:51] So I think, I very much agree with a lot of what Louise has said there.

I think the first is: nobody can be out of pocket for participation. [00:13:00] So, whether that means you know, in a post-Covid world, if you have to travel somewhere or if you have to get things translated or simply just your expertise and labour in participating to make a policy, a program an intervention more effective because you’re putting your expertise in, nobody should be out of pocket.

And on top of that, if you are giving labour of any kind, there should be a payment that comes with that. So that’s the first thing to meet participation worthwhile. The second thing is we can’t rely on one method of participation. So for example, we want to have a round table in central Scotland – doesn’t work. Because one thing we can take away from the pandemic is digital works for some people, face-to-face works with others, being in the community , having storytelling , having different social media, whatever it might be.

If you can use a multi-method approach, you will attract more people and you will attract more diverse [00:14:00] people to participate. So that is the second thing. And I think the third for me is, There has to be provision made for capacity building. So rather than coming to somebody, coming to a community group, for example, and saying, we’d like to get your sense on a consultation that has just been released by the Scottish Government or whatever it might be.

That can’t be your starting point. The starting point needs to be. What is a consultation? What is participation? How does participation work for you? What questions do you want to ask? Let’s help you shape those questions. You have a right to accountability. What is accountability? What are your rights in the space?

The more we can do that, the better informed people are the more robust our participation methods and critically the better we are at holding to account decision makers. So I think there’s a few things that need to be done here. And they require investment and time, but in the long run they create policymaking that is [00:15:00] much more effective for Scotland.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:15:02] And I’m sure there has been a lot of learning, as you both were saying from, from the pandemic. Is there anything that’s particularly struck you about how debate and participation has, has played out over the course of the pandemic thus far? I mean, you’ve, you’ve said that it’s sort of been brought more to the fore in some areas, that there’s things that can be learned, but is there anything that maybe surprised you, you know, for good or for ill? Talat maybe you could kick off.

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:15:24] So I guess the spread of misinformation, isn’t a surprise because that has been happening through the Trump era of politics. And we’ve seen that particularly over the last few years. So I, I’m not particularly surprised at it, but it is worrying – it is disturbing how fast inaccuracies can spread.

And I think it’s really made us have to pause and think: what tools do we actually have to be able to combat that? And the worry is that we don’t have that many, so we’re going to have to start developing them. We’re going to have to be much more proactive. This isn’t something that’s going to go away, it’s something that’s going to get worse if anything. [00:16:00] In terms of other things that I’ve, I’ve noticed – even if you look at parliamentary debate – the ability for our politicians to be able to participate in debate through remote working, through video conferencing, should not be remarkable.

And yet this is the first time it happened in Westminster or in Holyrood. If we’re to create politics that is accessible and a parliament that’s accessible for people to participate in, then that has to carry on beyond Covid. There has to be something that is accessible, whether it is giving evidence to committee, whether it is attending an event, whether it is an MSP or MP participating in a parliamentary or First Minister’s questions, I think it’s … has worked well.

And I think we need more of that. And largely, people have had to be much more flexible than they wanted to be or thought they were able to be. So I don’t think there’s any going back. I think it sets up an expectation of flexibility going forward, and I hope that [00:17:00] expectation is met post-Covid-19.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:17:02] Thank you. Louise, for you, any particular surprises?

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:17:06] Well it won’t suprise you to know I spend my time just agreeing with Talat. So, so definitely to that. And I think the thing I would, I mean, that point about kind of fake news and how narratives take hold: that, that whole kind of phrase about, you know, a lie travels around the world before the truth has even got its boots on…

Just has never felt more true than during this pandemic. And I think also the piece for me is how, quickly, some of those kinda narratives have really kind of taken hold and how difficult it then is to really challenge them. So even in terms of compliance, the evidence shows that actually most people have been compliant.

Most people have been… you know, doing their best and actually if they have broken it, you know, anyone, kinda the majority of those that have, it’s been because they’ve been caring for someone or there’s been some sort of family or, or whatever. Of course there have [00:18:00] been other instances but there have been very, very few in the grand scheme of things.

And yet it’s almost impossible to tell that story publicly. It’s so difficult for that to become the dominant narrative. And yet it is the truth. So again, just that conundrum. How do you work your way around that? I just find I’m not, I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer. I just find that really extraordinary to see that, and also for me, in terms of a kind of a surprise I think something I reflect on, I’m not sure it was a surprise, but we certainly picked up a kind of a sense that there was a missed opportunity in terms of young people helping more? And we picked that up from young people, probably more so in the kind of the first sort of lockdown, of the period. Where, you know, we were hearing from kind of young people that were very much: ‘just stay at home, don’t do anything’ et cetera. You know, even though, we know you’re a [00:19:00] relatively low risk group and there was a sense from them of frustration because they wanted to be part of the community effort and they wanted to be part of volunteering or find some way of kinda helping? And we never really found a way to unlock that.

There are some fabulous examples. Amazing. We heard so many stories where young people have stepped up. But it wasn’t really mobilized in a way that it perhaps could have been. And and so I suppose there’s a part of me that’s trying to reflect on why that happened the way it did, and I think, you know, if we’re honest, we all have to prepare for the next pandemic.

And so thinking about in particular community resilience, I’m really kind of thoughtful about how that could be activated, you know, with young people as part of that as well. So I’m quite thoughtful about that. So it’s less of a surprise, I suppose, Rebecca, but just something that I’ve thought about quite a lot.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:19:51] And it gives me an opportunity to plug another strand of the commission’s work, which is around building national resilience and thinking about resilience in the broader sense, which of course is [00:20:00] about systems and processes and how much resource you invest in things. But it’s also about how people are engaged as part of a resilient society.

I want to maybe pursue a little bit more the sort of fake news misinformation that you’ve both talked about a number of times already , and you said the spread of misinformation is, is not a surpise, but disturbing how narratives have been quite difficult to shift. And you gave compliance there Louise as an example.

But I guess for the media compliance isn’t a story. People behaving themselves isn’t a story, people gathering in numbers they shouldn’t and having illegal raves or whatever is a story, even if it’s very unusual. So I appreciate. You said you don’t have any answers, but as a former journalist and with language as part of your craft , what do you think that sort of taught us?

Or what reflections do you have about the shifts that have occurred in message communication and what we’ve learned from that?

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:20:51] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, I should say I’m not a journalist anymore. But I, I do find this all really really, really fascinating [00:21:00] because you know, for me, I still have a huge amount of respect for quality journalism, the importance of quality journalism to our world, to democracy, to informing people and so on is just absolutely vital And yet, we still find ourselves with headlines in some publications or you know, radio shows or whatever it might be or television , where that kind of narrative, that’s very kind of negative or it’s all about: look at all these masses crowded on beaches, whether it’s that or, or, or whatever.

Almost feels, you know, like it’s not balanced, it’s not balanced with then, someone coming in and saying, well, actually, yes, there were 400 people at such and such, but by the way, 4 million people didn’t go and visit their elderly relative in a care home today, you know? These kinds of things, just, just, just didn’t…

it’s not kind of coming through. But then there are some things that do [00:22:00] some, some of the good stuff does come through, you know, some of the brilliant fundraising, that’s happened or some of the great stories of how people have helped each other and the community have kind of helped each other as well, also kind of come through and the media do want to cover those good news stories also.

So it’s not as if it’s, there’s never a place for good news stories. It’s not binary. And maybe that’s part of the issue, in that way we can’t figure it out I mean . So it’s an incredible kind of mix and I think, more conversations with editors and, those that are in newsrooms or whichever, and whether that’s digital or in-person newsrooms about what are the kind of the ways that they think about these things and what the kind of ways that they consider having these kind of conversations that help them do what they’re there to do.

But also kind of play to the strengths that they have in terms of being a force for good, and media absolutely should be, could be, and in many cases is a force for [00:23:00] good. So I’d want us to have those kinds of conversations, with the media, I think, and understanding that more from their perspective.

But I would love to know what is the conversation that’s happening round the editorial table of a morning, if they still do that, I was a journalist a long time ago. But you know, what is the conversation that’s happening that’s then justifying a particular headline and where are the opportunities for us to hold that more to account? I think as well, because that’s also very difficult. It’s very difficult to find the space the challenge.

I mean, it’s about money and power. Ultimately. I know that I’m not naive, but I think there’s room for better conversations with the media about this.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:23:40] And maybe understanding different worlds.

I mean, one of the things that Data, Evidence and Science strand of work has been looking at, had a workshop with the media as I think you know, just the other day. And that was really interesting in terms of actually understanding what the media needed to know and some of the things that were difficult and, and what the pressures were on them.

Linked to that, what the scientists were trying to communicate. So actually having that [00:24:00] conversation I think is really important. I mean, one of the things I think your work strand has done really, really interestingly and really effectively has thought more broadly about what you’ve been calling the ‘Voices of Covid’ – those voices that have cut through during the pandemic and Janey Godley as, as one particular voice. And I wonder Talat, from your perspective, is there again, anything that’s particularly surprised you or has resonated with you in terms of the voices that have cut through, you know, maybe different from the voices that might have cut through to date in different situations?

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:24:30] I think that there is a surprise that some, that Janey Godley has become such a huge character in public health messaging – who knew that that would be something that would happen during a pandemic?

But I think the reason for it is the mixing of comedy and key messages. This is this has been a really difficult year, exceptionally difficult year, and I’m not surprised that people are attracted to something that makes them laugh. That’s something that makes them feel a bit better about their day.

And [00:25:00] I think if anything, it shows the value of messaging done through an alternative source. So, whether it is the arts, which have been hit really hard by the pandemic and will continue to after post pandemic and recovery. And it’s so critical that we give it the respect and value it deserves as that messenger … The, the ability to create collectivism in society.

So I think whether we use the arts or whether it is utilizing, you know community leaders more, we have to think beyond journalists or First Minister’s questions, or politicians and think who cuts through as a source of trust, as a source of companionship and comfort, as a source of laughter – who cuts through? Because the reality is if you just, if you just think what our media is talking about outside of Covid, or you think about the most recent [00:26:00] parliamentary debate in the chamber or in Westminster or Holyrood. If you talk to a random person on the street or next time you’re at a bus stop, that’s not what they’re talking about. So whether it’s those messages or it’s messages of public health, we have to find alternative methods of cut-through and that’s pre pandemic was needed.

And it’s certainly needed now to get people engaged and enthusiastic about public life. and important policy areas. We’ve got to start talking about it in a different way. How jargon-filled are our meetings? Just thinking about the meetings we have, the conversations we have, the papers that come through email.

I look at it and I go: this, this is barely accessible for me. And I’ve been working on this for years. So how are we making this something that people are not just having to hear, but want to hear? That’s the bit that we haven’t recognized or, or unpicked yet.

[00:27:00] Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:26:59] And it’s I think one of the things that struck me about the pandemic is actually how data evidence and science has become…

not always part of everybody’s narrative, but it has become part of the conversation if you like. I mean particularly early on, people talking about the R number, now people may be talking about vaccines and actually a desire to be having that conversation rather than it being something that is only for certain people in these sorts of spaces.

And that again, is there anything you think we can, we can learn from that in terms of actually how we continue to have an inclusive conversation? About things that might in the past have been seen as something for specialists? Louise, any reflections from you to kick off.

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:27:40] I mean, I would just agree that we, we do need to learn from it. I think the work in whether it is kind of Janey Godley or even actually, you know, background being very clearly within medicine and sciences, but Professor Jason Leitch, the way he’s kind of cut through in terms of some of the places and spaces, but also how he’s delivered [00:28:00] information as well, I think is really something for us to kind of take on board because I think the, the need during this pandemic, for that clarity, for people to understand that information, to make choices to keep themselves and those they love safe.

So that, you know, there was a moment to say, no, I want to engage with this because this is, this is absolutely pertinent to me and the people I care for in my community, but then seeing which was the kind of information that just never landed, which was the information that did.

And who were those voices and what was it? There are so many lessons I think in that, about how you talk about science and how you talk about these issues and we did quite a few , like Young Scot, we did a few Q and A’s with young people questioning some of that.

And that was incredibly helpful because actually young people just ask really, really basic questions. But basic questioning is brilliant, you know, really kind of [00:29:00] like ask the daft questions. Cause they’re always the best ones, to try and explain things. And so, so really kind of, it’s not insulting to explain something clearly.

I mean it is to be really kind of high-handed about it, but to explain something clearly is a real, skill, but also something has enormous value. And so almost kind of… recognizing that, and as Talat says, using that kind of jargon, of course there has to be precision and and accuracy, but that doesn’t mean it needs jargon.

That doesn’t mean it needs to be impenetrable. You know, there is a real skill. And I think a real kind of beauty actually, to be able to communicate these things. I think there’s lots to learn from and lots to study in terms of what’s worked and what hasn’t over this past year for sure.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:29:49] And make it okay I think to ask questions as well. I think as we get older, we sort of think: Oh, we should know, or we feel embarrassed about asking questions, although there’s things all of us don’t know. I mean, [00:30:00] actually one of the sort of drivers for the podcast series was Tea and Talks we’d run during the festival a couple of years ago, which was very much about actually having an expert from the Fellowship just talk for 10 minutes and then have a conversation with people. So not just a lot of transmission of information, but a conversation where people could ask what they wanted or provide their comments and it was a really simple format. But I was just really struck by how well it landed because it was people who could actually be part of that conversation rather than just be on the receiving end of a whole flurry of information.

Some of which might, they might be interested in some of which might they might not. So there seemed to be sort of fairly simple things we can do. Talat, from your experience – I mean the information and communication gap between decision-makers and those perhaps furthest away from the decisions that affect their daily lives…

What are your of reflections from the last sort of year in terms of how that’s been impacted by the pandemic and what we’ve learned?

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:30:53] So I think that the current gap has just been reinforced and yes, [00:31:00] likely been made bigger. Part of that is because actually when you are faced with as many people have job losses or a reduction in income, when there is stress, participating in society, participating in public life is a luxury.

When you are trying to sustain your ability to be able to pay your bills. Which is another reason why tackling poverty is a public participation and public good, more widely, you know, not just for the individual, it allows people to take part in their world. Because they’re not thinking about: I’ve got two jobs.

I’m on a zero hour contract. How am I going to, pay my bills this week or this month? So I think in some ways that has grown. What I think has been a bit of a missed opportunity during this time, and I’m surprised because usually we’re better at this is the use of on the ground grassroots community leaders.

As public health messengers during the pandemic. [00:32:00] So I have seen some brilliant work done, whether it’s the Glasgow Gurdwara and the Sikh food bank, whether it is Shakti Women’s Aid, whether it is local churches and mosques doing brilliant things, suddenly making Friday and Sunday sermons available online, helping older people use Facebook to be able to get in touch with the church, all of these things.

Those are trusted messengers in a community, much more trusted than somebody we don’t know, or that is a politician or a public health expert. So actually we need to build relationships for future pandemic – and I, I, I don’t like saying this, but the inevitability of a pandemic in the future is very likely, so we need to be able to build those routes into communities so that we’re able to say, right.

You are, you are messengers who have a group of people who trust you, you know how to contact them. There’s a WhatsApp group for your church. You have a better mechanism for contact [00:33:00] than what government or council or any kind of advisory group does. Would you feel comfortable saying this? Can you ask them what is the best delivery mechanism for vaccines?

I think for example, we would have better trust in the Black, Asian minority ethnic communities towards vaccines and public health messaging if we were using those routes. So I think there’s things we could do better. I think there’s things we could learn from for sure. And the, the closer we can be to communities and the better we can sustain those communities and move them out of poverty, the better we are equipped for the next crisis.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:33:38] And are there particular things you think we can do, whoever that we is, to be closer to communities and to make sure that does happen?

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:33:46] So I guess the we here is, is a mixture of third sector, government, local authorities. And I think we need to build relationships and that happens through sustainable funding.

Of interventions and [00:34:00] programs, it happens. by creating pathways for participation, that are not tick boxes, but actually are asking your input before the decision’s made and then sustaining those participation methods and creating, you know, it’s, it’s almost going back to the old version of politics of the village hall and where everyone kind of knew everybody, you’d walk down the street and the councillor knew the people who were on the high street, it’s trying to get back into neighborhoods and communities. So people know each other. And if we can do that and we can have more connections like that, then we create more trusted individuals, trusted leaders, to be able to work with us.

But we need to build a relationship, particularly with grassroots communities.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:34:47] So it sounds, I don’t know if I’m putting an optimistic gloss on this, but there’s a potential here for a fairly fundamental shift in the foundations of power and influence. Or as I say, am I being overly optimistic or seeing

what I [00:35:00] want to see on that sense?

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:35:01] No, I don’t. think you’re being overly optimistic. I think, I think the glass should always be half full where it can be. I don’t think you’re being overly optimistic. The caution is… during recovery. If we focus on a very binary recovery that just looks at the bottom line and looks at the economy in a very traditional way, then we will forget these lessons.

We’ll forget the equalities lessons and we’ll pursue economic recovery that is on the backs of people who are already facing inequalities. So provided, we can keep these lessons in mind, which, you know, I will be making it my job to do as much of that as possible, but provided, we can keep these lessons in mind.

I think there is real optimism. And I also think people have felt to acutely the inequality to allow us to go back to a norm that didn’t work for them. So I think there’s definitely optimism because we’ve all had to learn some very harsh lessons in a very short period of time.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:35:57] Yeah. And I’m always conscious whenever we talk about Covid, when you [00:36:00] talk about some of the sort of what’s been learned and potentially the benefits, just, it’s difficult to use that word in the context of such a tragedy and such a loss for so many lives, as well as for society as a whole. Louise for you though, what do you think is important in terms of sustaining some of those important learnings – so, in terms of participation engagement to make sure that we don’t lose what has come out of the pandemic.

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:36:24] Yeah. I think that equalities thing can just never stop being a thing we talk about just I mean, in the sense that I was talking to someone the other day, and we’re sort of seeing the actually tackling inequalities and poverty is probably the resilience project we need you know? Because actually they are, crucial in terms of kind of resilience in terms of future pandemics and things as well. And I think I mean, everyone talks about how during this pandemic for a while, things happened much faster. You know, there was a faster mobilization, decisions were made quicker.

Old systems [00:37:00] were kind of pushed to one side and a push to kind of find ways to get things done, to kind of help people and so on. And I think some of the, the spirit of that may have eased away, I think, in recent months, but I’d quite like to see that come back, I’d quite like somebody to just hold onto that and pull it back into the light and say, hang on.

Lots of this worked pretty well. So that’s very similar to what Talat’s saying – in that rush to kind of go back to whatever normal was. I think we need to stop ourselves. If we find ourselves saying that, or we find ourselves leaning towards that without saying: ‘but there are some parts of it we’re definitely going to leave behind’. And so that sense of, I mean, I think this was something that came up in the work that the Scottish government did with the Social Renewal Advisory Board was that sense of balancing social renewal with the economic recovery. And I think they absolutely have to be hand in hand in terms of us going forward and they can’t be [00:38:00] decoupled from each other, I think they need to be held together very, very strongly.

I think it would be would be my sense.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:38:06] And it’s quite interesting I think isn’t that how that sort of narrative has maybe matured and moved on from the societal or the health versus the economic to actually realizing that these are fundamentally interlinked and you can’t have one without, the other.

I’m conscious that the work strand that you’re, you’re both leading is looking at both public debate and public participation. And, and sometimes we sort of run them, together. And I was wondering for you, you know, what have you observed so far about how these two things: debate and participation, actually interconnect and maybe where they differ as well?

Talat, do you want to kick off on that one?

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:38:41] Sure. I, I guess for many people, their participation in public life is dialogue. So the participation that you have is the conversations you’re having with people around you, is potentially the response to a post on Facebook or something that you’re posting up that might be their participation method.

So for [00:39:00] that reason, public debates and well-informed accurate public debate, either enables or disables participation. And high quality purposeful participation. So they absolutely both run together. I think where they become separate is what we mean by participation. So participation in the larger sense, of society.

Obviously that includes public debate because it’s dialogue. But when we start talking about public participation and policy. Then they become slightly different things, which is the creation of pathways and interventions into decision-making where the onus isn’t on the individual or the community to participate with public debate.

But the onus is on government, local authorities, academic sector, third sector, to create the pathways well with people to engage them. So then that, that becomes a different side of it. And so during our working group, we’ve been looking at [00:40:00] both of these things together because they do go hand-in-hand in the, greater grand scale of society.

But when we start drilling it down into policy making and policy participation, it becomes quite specific. And I think there’s a fair amount of work going on on the interventions into policy making, which is why we wanted to keep the two things together, because we do want to talk about the wider sense of participation and the extent to which people feel a sense of ownership to the decisions that are being made around them, to what extent do people feel like things are happening with them rather than to them? And to what extent do they feel that they have the information available to be able to debate things in a way that feels confident and accurate. So I think the two things definitely go hand in hand.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:40:46] Thank you. Louise, anything you’d want to add to that?

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:40:50] I think the only thing I’d want to add is just that line between being involved in and kind of debate and dialogue, I suppose, and then not move along into be [00:41:00] involved in participation in particular, in decision making or policy making.

And I think when you start to shift along to that line around involvement and policy and so on, ultimately what’s at play there is also about power and who has it, who holds it, how they’re willing to share it. And also a willingness to give power up. And, I suppose for me, where that then starts to start to shape into something, something different.

And I suppose for the, the piece around kind of dialogue… the quality of dialogue also absolutely reflects on whether – is often an entry point as to whether people will then get involved or participate more or wants to take a step towards being more heavily involved, which is why, you know, the, the work that the young Academy have been doing around respectful dialogue is so important.

Because we know that disrespectful dialogue turns people off participation. We’re seeing it in [00:42:00] terms of women in politics. We’re seeing it in a whole range of kind of in particular for women in public spaces, but not just women, LGBTQI communities and others. And so that sense of the, kind of the respectful dialogue and the importance of it…

Is also something that obviously the RSE itself has been looking at with the Young Academy, is such a pertinent issue for us to consider as well, because that respectful dialogue often is the thing that will either stop or advance people’s participation.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:42:31] One of the things that’s come through, I think very strongly from the work stream that you’ve been leading is that this is not an esoteric or academic debate either about public debate and participation. This fundamentally has an impact on people’s lives. So it isn’t just something that exists in the ether.

So I’m feeling particularly magnanimous today and I’m going to give you each one wish. So reflecting on your experience throughout the years of supporting debate and participation, if you could have one wish that you know [00:43:00] would come true about actually how we do that well, how we support active citizenship and inclusive public debate and dialogue… what would that be? And Louise, I’m going to come to you first.

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:43:10] Man, that’s such a tough question. It’s a tough, it’s a long list, but there’s certainly more than one thing on that. I do like a bit of systems theory, so I would want better resourced system to allow that to happen in an inclusive way.

So I’d want, much more capacity and resource in the system to allow that to happen meaningfully with integrity and an inclusive way.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:43:39] So being clear that this isn’t an optional extra, that actually, if we’re serious about this, it needs some investment behind it.

Louise Macdonald FRSE: [00:43:47] Absolutely, yep.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:43:48] And Talat, what about for you?

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:43:50] Well endorse Louise’s wish and fingers crossed that comes true for one day soon. I think for me, often we talk about participation as a [00:44:00] thing that’s happening or, or we’re doing well. And we talk about it in a, in a silo, away from the way policy either acts as a barrier or an enabler. So I would want the wish to be that there is a better understanding and therefore better interventions, whether through policies, through funding, whatever it might be of the reality that.

Systemic inequality and poverty prevents participation prevents a fully engaged democracy, prevents fit for purpose decision-making. So if we want participation to happen well, we have to tackle poverty. We have to tackle systemic inequality, whether that’s sexism racism, bigotry, ableism, wherever it might be.

We can’t have participation without good participation, high quality participation, without doing something about the rest, because then it becomes participation as window dressing. So [00:45:00] participation understood and intrinsically linked to anti-poverty and equality measures.

Dr. Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:45:07] Thank you. And I know the workstream is looking at as you sort of bring things together, actually, some of the wider learnings to be thought about.

So you may yet get some more wishes to come true but for now, Talat, Louise, thank you so much for giving up your time today, to talk with me about how we build on the experience of Covid to improve both public debate and participation in decision-making. Thank you very much.

Talat Yaqoob FRSE: [00:45:29] Thanks so much.

Thank you.

Tea & Talk
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Talat Yaqoob FRSE
Louise Macdonald OBE FRSE
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