Published on July 29, 2014

Public Question Time: Nice idea, but how to actually do it?

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.


Ed Miliband came up with an interesting proposal over the weekend:  to hold a weekly “public question time” in parliament, modelled on the traditional Q and A session of Prime Minister’s Question time but with ordinary people, rather than MPs, asking the questions.

He has said that the Q and A session should be held at least fortnightly but ideally weekly, and that it should bring together an audience of members of the public who are representative of the country and have a wide range of political backgrounds.

It’s great to see public engagement rising up the political agenda in this way, and it’s arguably even if Miliband’s idea doesn’t reach full flight the attempt to restore the disconnect between politicans and ordinary people can only be constructive.  The reception so far has been warm:  George Eaton in the New Statesman called it a “smart idea” and Adam Fleming of the BBC called it “pretty revolutionary”.  Politicians might stress that they already do the same thing in other ways (Clegg in his radio programme and Cameron on his weekly sessions with the public around the country), but none of the parties can afford to disagree with giving the public a stronger voice in political debate.

There are, however, some clear minefields lurking:

Where does this leave MPs?  What’s the difference between MPs (who have been elected as representatives of the public, after all) and a group of members of the public who have been selected (by one method or another) and are then described as a representative group?  This proposal must be clearly framed as an addition, rather than a replacement to the scrutiny role already played MPs in a representative democracy; and there should be clarity about the value-add.  In short, we must apply the classic question for anyone doing public engagement:  what’s the purpose?

I suspect there will be a number of MPs who object to the public taking over ‘their’ job on ‘their’ turf – literally taking their places on the green benches.  There will be pressure to shunt the sessions into less high profile places in parliament (committee rooms, Westminster Hall and the like), and these may then not look very different than the raft of Q and A sessions that already exist.  It is in fact worth the pros and cons of using the House of Commons as a best venue:  this stuffy, formal space may make some participants uncomfortable and you might even find that the space is so bound up with combative, broo-har-har associations that the public act out these patterns themselves.  If the sessions don’t really work, there is a high risk that they will peter out once the media attention and momentum drifts.  In short, if there isn’t clarity of purpose then the ‘PR stunt’ accusation will be valid.

There’s something quite old fashioned, in this day and age, about bringing the public to Westminster to ask their questions.  One relatively straightforward way to carve-out the value add of Public PMQs would be to think about some kind of crowdsourcing mechanism for coming up with the questions.  There are dozens of tools that could be used to pull together, synthesise and vote for the most salient questions – doing this online in an open and transparent way could enable a much larger group of people’s voices to be heard, and a more cogent set of questions.  These would of course have to be carefully designed to mitigate the threats of hijack and abuse.  At Involve we’ve actually been dealing with a number of key technical issues on a similar challenge through our work on NHS Citizen, a structure to help the public hold the board of NHS England to account.  The issues of representativeness, process and how to avoid hijack are at the heart of how to do public participation well, and there is considerable understanding now of how to bring the right toolkit to bear.

There could be enormous value in the idea of public question time, and with careful planning it should be possible to clarify the purpose and design an appropriate mechanism to make it meaningful.  The tricky bit will be figuring out what this means for the role of MPs.  Indeed, the most fundamental questions that a public question time might raise may not the questions directed at the prime minister; so much as at MPs themselves.


Photo credit:  An important vote: the House of Lords voting for the Parliament Act 1911From the Drawing by S. Begg.  Licenced for reuse.

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