Tackling the Democratic Deficit in Transport Delivery

There is an intriguing chapter about transport governance in the draft national transport strategy for Scotland published in July. The draft strategy proposes immediate action in three key areas: increasing accountability; strengthening evidence; and managing demand. Previous strategies have been strong on policy intent and weak on delivery detail, but the latest draft helpfully indicates the direction of future transport governance arrangements with "...some form of regional model, allowing for spatial variations, which will focus on achieving better outcomes for citizens, communities, and businesses..... through a 'place-based' approach."

So far so good. Poor accountability, weak links with evidence and demand management inconsistent with policy have been key areas hampering effective transport delivery. The prospect of immediate action on these is very promising. Less positive is that the strategy also states that "governance is a complex issue, and further work needs to be done to develop a model for future transport governance in Scotland that is capable of being implemented." To help with this, a transport strategy delivery board is proposed along with transport citizens' panels and business engagement to better understand experiences of travel and inform policy implementation. The 'immediate action' seems to be to buttress representative political democracy with boards and panels rather than tackle directly the democratic deficit that creates the need for better accountability, evidence and demand management.

We already load more accountability on elected representatives than they can handle. Politicians faced with lobbying from climate change protestors, business leaders, transport operators and many others are completely unable to resolve these complex conflicts within frontline politics. This has been evidenced globally for decades through weak implementation of policies, despite many professionals calling for strong political leadership. Countries like China that combine economic freedom with political autocracy are achieving far greater progress. The backlash against democratically elected politicians failing to deliver on critical policies like climate change is leading to the growing dangers from populist and authoritarian leadership and a breakdown of law and order. Even established parts of the toolkit like the fuel price escalator have become too controversial with political competition leading to outcomes inconsistent with stated policy.

New strategy must look beyond propping up representative political democracies as the only way to strengthen transport democracy. Successful democratic models of transport delivery could pay greater attention to the strong track record of deliberative democracy in strengthening delivery, and more democratic market design. Forward looking transport strategy must reboot toolkits such as citizens' juries and pay more attention to the delivery of social goals when framing regulation of growing markets.

Deliberative democracy recently attracted extensive media attention as a potential way of raising the quality of debate on Brexit policy. Experience shows that citizens' juries help to strengthen the ability of representative political democracies to work with local communities. When Clackmannanshire Council set up a citizen's jury in the mid-1990s, it succeeded in helping the Council to implement many controversial transport policies. Perhaps more important than the decisions reached by the jury, were the contributions made by the members of the jury helping to implement their decisions. Better understanding and trust within the community were strong foundations for controversial active travel, public transport and travel demand management policies.

In the appendix to the new draft Scottish strategy the government indicates how it wants to measure success. If these indicators were used in conjunction with effective regulation to align market design with transport policy aims, then the strategy goals might be achievable. For example, the proposed headline indicators for access to services could be used to create new socially designed markets. Regulation of access controls could be used to create fairer markets resulting in far better ways to manage social transport goals than many of the current poorly targeted subsidies. Policies such a parking taxation or road pricing have a long a track record of being politically unachievable contrasting with the success of access controls managed by transport providers.

Scottish Government deserve full marks for correctly diagnosing the problems with transport delivery. Achieving this has relied on a collaborative approach. Understanding the problem is an important first step. However, when it comes to solutions, the discussion in the draft strategy is less about these broader collaborations than the relative roles of local, regional and national representative political democracies.

The greatest democratic failures in transport delivery result from shallow public understanding of the issues. Proven deliberative democratic approaches can be used to strengthen democracy from the bottom up, and market design can then enable delivery against clear social policy goals. This helps citizens and businesses to design and resolve transport supply and demand in ways that cannot possibly be achieved at the frontline of politics. In Scotland the politicians have made an important first step in recognising the democratic deficit. The consultation on the new draft strategy could now be used to overcome what appear to be initial instincts to park the potential collaborative solutions in 'further work'.

Derek Halden is Director of DHC Loop Connections and Secretary of Scotland's transport think tank STSG