This piece is #2 in the 'Visions for the Future of Democracy' series curated by Involve for its 15th anniversary. We have asked authors to provide their vision or take on democracy 15 years from now.
The role of a parliament is to represent voters within the political process, to deliberate on, scrutinise and shape the decisions made by the government. Our representative democracy gives individual MPs the job of representing their constituents’ views. But arguably an understanding of their own constituents is insufficient to equip an MP to undertake their role to its fullest extent. The work of MPs (and peers) would be enhanced by the more frequent and systematic use of participatory and deliberative techniques designed to involve the public in parliamentary processes, bringing the views and experience of voters to the heart of representative democracy.
My vision for democracy in fifteen years’ time is of: a parliament that has made a step change in involving the public in its deliberation and scrutiny work; a parliament into whose procedures, participatory and deliberative techniques have been fully integrated; a parliament whose physical environment is accessible, flexible, and inviting to the public it represents. Such a Parliament would fulfil its representative role more effectively, with the welcome side-effect of improving its reputation with the public.
Fifteen years ago – when I began working in the House of Commons – the public’s involvement in parliament was limited to formal calls for evidence by select committee and individual contact between MPs and their constituents.
Much has changed. Select committees have exploited the potential of digital technology to find different ways of reaching the public – through social media, online forums and video evidence. The legislative process has been made more open through the introduction of evidence taking by Public Bill Committees and the inclusion of explanatory statements on amendments to bills – to give the public some chance of understanding what is being proposed. The moribund public petitions process has been revivified as a jointly parliament-government-owned digital process, which allows the public to initiate subjects for debate in Westminster Hall (via the sifting mechanism of the Petitions Committee). Most recently, select committees have begun to recognise the potential of deliberative techniques to inform their work, commissioning citizens assemblies on social care and climate adaptation.
So where could we get to in the next 15 years?
Select committees are often criticised for their tendency to take evidence from a small group of ‘usual suspects’. MPs complain about organised, online campaigns which flood their inboxes with the views of well organised minorities. Making more systematic use of participatory and deliberative techniques will enable MPs and peers to ensure they understand the views of a wider range of the public – not just from those who are already motivated and capable enough to put their thoughts forward.
Proving how public participation and deliberation enhance the impact of select committee work will be important.
What are now one-off experiments by select committees with participatory and deliberative techniques should become a routine aspect of their work. This will require the development of in-house expertise, the allocation of funding and a focus on evidencing the benefits of these techniques to parliamentarians.
To date, the citizens assemblies run by the House of Commons have been supported by external professionals – including Involve. If deliberative and participatory processes are to be seen as a normal part of the repertoire of committees’ evidence gathering techniques, parliament will need to develop the capacity and expertise to deliver these among its own staff – capitalising on the enthusiasm of those who have already been involved.
Dedicated funding will be key. Committees should be able to bid for a central pot of money to pay for the costs involved in running participatory and deliberative exercises – just as before the pandemic closed the UK’s borders – they used to bid to the Liaison Committee for the costs of travelling internationally. Not all inquiry subjects will be enhanced by these techniques, but committees should be confident of being able to secure funds for suitable proposals – without having to make the case from scratch each time.
Proving how public participation and deliberation enhance the impact of select committee work will be important. Although joint working between select committees has become much more common over the past decade, committees can still become siloed in their work. There is still more to be done to ensure best practice is shared between committees. In fifteen years’ time, there should be constant interchange between committee members and staff, so that discussions of what works can drive the adoption of the most effective techniques and generate a ‘race to the top’ on public involvement.
Gathering evidence of impact will be similarly important to the public who engage with parliament –demonstrating how their input has shaped the conclusions reached by MPs and peers and – even more importantly – the way that government responds to those findings.
Both pre- and post-legislative scrutiny are likely to benefit from insights produced by inviting members of the public who have been or would be affected by legislation to deliberate on its provisions.
It should not be just for select committees to sponsor the use of participatory and deliberative methods. Although I imagine that committees will lead the way, their demonstration effect should persuade the Commons and the Lords to recognise the value of public involvement – both in enhancing their own deliberation and scrutiny and symbolising the value that they place on understanding what the public think. It should be a relatively small step from a Climate Assembly sponsored by six select committees to a deliberative exercise commissioned by a whole House.
Other parliaments are well ahead of Westminster on this – the Irish Constitutional Convention (2012-14) which led directly to legislative proposals and a referendum on the legalisation of same-sex marriage was composed of both elected representatives and randomly selected citizens. In 2019 the Brussels parliament went a step further by establishing permanent, joint deliberative committees composed of members of the public and elected representatives. These enable ordinary people and MPs to debate particular subjects together and to come up with recommendations. In fifteen years’ time, the Westminster parliament should be commissioning its own deliberative exercises.
Pre and post legislative scrutiny
In addition to scrutiny, another of parliament’s key roles is to pass legislation. It may be difficult to integrate deliberative processes into the passage of bills through the two Houses – primarily because of the short timeframe within which this normally happens. But in fifteen years’ time it should be accepted that public involvement may well enhance the scrutiny of the dedicated joint committees conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of bills the government is considering introducing, and Lords committees conducting post-legislative scrutiny of Acts passed some years before. Both pre- and post-legislative scrutiny are likely to benefit from insights produced by inviting members of the public who have been or would be affected by legislation to deliberate on its provisions.
Citizens who are not MPs or peers may well be better equipped to deliberate and make trade-offs between important issues than those whose views are shaped by wider political considerations.
In fifteen years’ time, some MPs will be sufficiently convinced of the value of deliberative and participatory techniques that they will want to apply them in their constituencies. The parliamentary authorities should support individual MPs to employ the techniques of distributed dialogue to explore complex issues through a range of conversations in different spaces. This will allow constituents to become involved in deliberation in multiple different ways, via a range of different media, and – if they wish – to get involved in organising the process themselves.
The parliamentary estate
The process of restoring and renewing (R&R) the Palace of Westminster – if it is not subject to further delay - represents an opportunity for the parliament of fifteen years’ time. The Delivery Authority that will direct the work has been told by MPs and peers that the renovations should include “the improvement of visitor access including the provision of new educational and other facilities for visitors and full access for people with disabilities.” MPs and peers should interpret this remit to include the provision of flexible, accessible spaces suitable for a variety of different modes of public involvement. These should be designed to be welcoming to the public, bookable in advance and convenient to access for MPs and peers – to encourage them to observe deliberative processes in action.
Citizens who are not MPs or peers may well be better equipped to deliberate and make trade-offs between important issues than those whose views are shaped by wider political considerations. When parliamentarians deliberate, most do so as party animals and struggle to evaluate important issues without their views being shaped through the lens of party politics. This may be inevitable, but it also makes parliamentarians highly unusual within the UK population, because most members of the public are not involved in political parties.
Involving the public in parliamentary processes will help MPs and peers to understand the perspective of ordinary members of the public. Making use of participatory and deliberative techniques will potentially deliver conclusions and consensus that would be inaccessible to politicians. And being involved in parliamentary processes – feeling that their perspective matters - will improve the public’s opinion of politicians and increase trust in representative democracy. That surely is a prize worth pursuing.