The proposal to create space for the public to engage directly with the Prime Minister on a regular basis is very welcome – but it’s important not to get it wrong. 

Providing opportunities for public engagement is not like providing healthcare or education:  even low quality healthcare or education is usually better than none at all, but low quality public engagement can lead to a breakdown in trust, anger and may put people off engaging in future efforts.  Bad public engagement can be worse than doing nothing at all.

As the UK’s only think tank specialising in public participation, Involve are pleased to offer party leaders our support in thinking through how to develop Public Question Time and create a meaningful, high quality space for engaging with citizens. This top level advice about getting it right applies equally to any attempts to involve the public in the growing debate about devolution and democratic reform following the recent Scottish independence referendum.

Clarify the purpose

The most important thing when planning any public engagement activity is to be 100% clear what the purpose is.  The temptation is usually to rush ahead and start thinking about what the process will look like. However, skipping ahead to design questions before the purpose is clarified is often how engagement processes lose their way.  It’s important that all the people who have a declared interest in the issue have a shared understanding of the purpose.  They must be really honest with themselves (and each other) about this, so that the trade-offs in the design of the process that are required to achieve different purposes can then be dealt with in a coherent and logical way.

Public Question Time could have a variety of purposes, for example:

1 To symbolically put citizens at the heart of parliament

There are an array of Q and A sessions between politicians and the public already, but the value add of public question time is arguably the symbolism of bring members of the public physically into the spaces of Westminster.  If this was the key purpose, then having citizens actually in the chamber itself (rather than in committee rooms or lower profile spaces) would be important.  But this would come with its own challenges – to fill the chamber would mean bringing around 650 citizens in, but there would only be time for a very small number to speak (the others would probably go away feeling disgruntled, or worse as this would probably be their only chance to ask the Prime Minister a question about their issue).

2 To improve political culture

Public Question Time could be an opportunity to get away from the yah-boo style of traditional PMQs and demonstrate a more deliberative, deeper form of political engagement.  If this was the key purpose then it would be important to avoid the situation where members of the public simply play being ‘MPs for the day’ (and mimic what they have seen on traditional PMQs).  It is likely that PMQs would work best as facilitated sessions in relatively small groups, probably in a physical space that is properly set up for this (for example allowing collaboration around tables, not lining up for combat across the green benches).

3 To get the public to set the agenda

Rather than getting the public to respond to issues already identified as part of the political agenda in Westminster, Public Question Time could be designed to give the public an opportunity to raise their own issues.  If this was the key purpose, it might be that the best way to design the process would be through some kind of crowdsourcing mechanism.  There are various options for doing this.  One interesting proposal was made recently by Prof Christian Fuchs, using citizen-generated videos for questions to the Prime Minister (see here).

4 To improve the accountability of the Prime Minister

Public Question Time could be a means to enable citizens to hold the Prime Minister accountable on specific programmes of government work – bringing citizens in on the high-level, strategic questions and enabling the public to provide their own level of scrutiny on how well the government has been delivering.  This might act as a kind of early warning system where government is seriously out of step with public values, and complement existing structures for parliamentary scrutiny by focusing on specific areas. However, to be more than a token gesture it would require significantly more time than the title ‘Question Time’ suggests.

5 To bolster legitimacy

Public Question Time is undoubtedly attractive to many politicians as a means of boosting the legitimacy of parliament and addressing the accusation that the Prime Minister and MPs exist in a Westminster bubble.  If, in truth, the purpose of Public Question Time is to bolster legitimacy it is important to face up to this and look carefully at whether the scheme can really be designed with credibility.  The scheme will fall part if it boils down to a politician asking “please can you come to Westminster and ask a question to give me legitimacy”.

Our recommendations are:

  • Involve all the key stakeholders in the design phase. Bring together a cross-party group of parliamentarians, alongside a small group of 20-30 citizens to think carefully together about what the purpose of Public Question Time should be and consider the design options together.  It’s critical to involve citizens in the design of the scheme itself (not just as consumers of it).  Give serious thought to live-streaming this design work, as we have done in our recent project, NHS Citizen, which is being designed to allow citizens to hold the board of NHS England to account and is designed entirely in the open.
  • Aim for the long term. There is a significant opportunity in Public Question Time to weave citizens in to the fabric of Westminster life in a lasting way – not just through a ‘one off’ participation event.  Public Question Time needs to be designed to work on a bad day: adding value to democracy even when things haven’t gone smoothly and when the political winds are not favourable.  If the scheme is effective in creating a meaningful space for engagement, the gravitas of Public Question Time will develop naturally.  In the long term, it would be a mistake to make too many compromises on quality for the sake of symbolism.
  • Learn as you go. Set up the expectation that Public Question Time should be developed and improved over time, with a view to establishing a role for citizens in parliament in the long term – don’t promise to get it right first time.  It might be worth trialling Public Question Time at a Parliamentary Committee level (it may not just be a format for the Prime Minister), to work out any teething problems in lower profile setting. To make this process of learning legitimate it will be important to establish and open evaluation of how it is working. One suggestion would be for citizens and MPs to identify the indicators together during the design phase (see above) and for citizens to monitor the process alongside MPs.

We would suggest a two stage process going forward:  Firstly, for all parties to commit to Public Question Time in their manifestos, cementing support for this at a cross-party level.  Secondly, after the election to undertake a transparent, open design process involving all parties and, crucially, citizens themselves.

As experts in public participation, Involve are keen to support and contribute to this work going forward.  We would be very pleased to provide constructive feedback and peer review on the design of Public Question Time, or to convene a group of experts from the democracy sector to provide this.  This is an initiative that has tremendous potential, but which requires careful consideration to get it off on the right track.

Download the briefing as a two-pager here.

Photo credit Michael D Beckwith: Flickr