Last week I had the opportunity to speak to the Commission on Parliamentary Reform, at the Scottish Parliament, about opportunities for widening and deepening public participation in parliamentary processes.

my-social-network-by-luc-legayThis independent Commission was set up in October 2016 to look at how Parliament can engage better with the people of Scotland and how its work can be improved to deliver better scrutiny. Working under the title ‘Your Parliament, Your Voice’ the focus of the Commission’s 3rd meeting was on the importance of increasing public engagement. A panel of academics and practitioners, Involve among them, were invited to present their approach to this challenge.

Joining me on the panel were:

  • Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira (Professor of Politics, University of Leeds) who spoke about Parliament’s lack of visible role to the wider population, the need for engagement to be tied to issues that people care about and the importance of developing engagement in as part of normal parliamentary business, rather than in parallel;
  • Dr Oliver Escobar (Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Edinburgh) who talked about the rise of ‘democratic innovations’ (e.g. citizens juries, deliberative polls, participatory budgeting and crowd-sourcing) and the opportunities these types of methods bring for deliberative public engagement with issues facing parliaments; and
  • Kirsten Urquhart (Director of Digital Information, Young Scot) who discussed what Young Scot has learnt through involving young people in meaningful debates and co-design processes about things that affect their lives (like health, transport, policing and education), highlighting the importance of engaging people on their own terms, in the spaces they operate within and in a format they are familiar with.

Starting from Involve’s commitment to creating opportunities for the participation of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives, I chose to focus on the potential of involving the wider public more in the work of Parliamentary Committees: taking a practical approach to exploring the challenges faced in engaging more widely as a Committee in meaningful and purposeful ways. Rather than focusing on the methods and mechanisms they could use however, I concentrated on the importance of seeing engagement as a process, and a process that should always start from questions of Why? Involve’s background paper submitted to the Commission exploring these issues can be found here.

A rich and absorbing discussion with Commission members followed our opening presentations and  cut across a wide range of subjects including:

  • The complimentary relationship between participatory and representative democracy;
  • The challenge of involving the un-engaged, and proven mechanisms for supporting diverse participation;
  • The need for capacity building, not just for organisations undertaking engagement activities, but also for individuals and communities to better understand the contribution their participation can make;
  • The role that positive experiences of participation plays in promoting a culture of wider civic engagement;
  • The importance of integrating engagement activities within decision making and scrutiny processes rather than seeing them as an ‘add on’;
  • The added value that informed, deliberative public engagement can bring to MSP’s and parliamentary business.

Time permitting, the discussion could have continued for far longer. Hopefully however it has left the Commission with lots to consider as they continue to investigate just how the Parliament can best increase and strengthen its engagement with the wider public in on-going and meaningful ways.

The full text of the background papers prepared by the other panelists can be found here.


Picture Credit: Luc Legay (Creative Commons 2.0)