By Dr Catherine Bochel, Reader in Policy Studies, University of Lincoln
In a post-Brexit world, the way Parliament works and engages with the public is more important than ever.
In November 2016, the House of Commons, in partnership with the Political Studies Association awarded five Academic Fellowships to enable academic researchers rare access to Westminster to work on a range of projects over the next two years.
The Fellowships examine issues which are all important in contributing to public understanding of Parliament, and may help to inform, evaluate and enhance the work of the House and that of parliamentarians.
As one of the Academic Fellows, I am exploring whether procedural justice, essentially a ‘fair process’, can be used as an analytical tool to explore public engagement with Parliament. This builds on my work on petitions systems in the UK, which has illustrated that some petitions systems, notably those in the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the collaborative UK government and Parliament system, can be seen as being underpinned by elements of procedural justice. I am therefore using this as a framework of ideas to see what participatory initiatives in Parliament may learn from this concept.
How people experience engagement with Parliament
The Wright Committee and the subsequent inquiry into the impact of the Wright reforms, highlighted the need for greater public engagement with Parliament. There are now increasing ways in which the public can do this. However, encouraging the public to ‘get involved’ is only one part of successful public engagement; people’s experience of engaging with Parliament, and of their treatment by the system, are equally important.
In a liberal democratic system people may not get all or any of what they ask for, so their treatment by the system and experience of it is very important. Final decisions are made by elected representatives, so the public must be able to see that the decision making process is fair and transparent. It may affect not only how the public view the individual elements of public engagement with which they have contact, but also the wider political and governmental processes.
If the processes underpinning the participatory initiatives which Parliament run are clearly explained, fair and transparent, and experienced as such by the public, this may also contribute to public understanding of Parliament and enhance its work.
The research will begin by scoping the nature and extent of public engagement with Parliament. I then plan to focus on a number of two-dimensional forms of engagement and develop a framework to measure the degree of voice and participation, the extent of control the public might have over the decision making process, the quality of that process, and the clarity/transparency that each element of public engagement enables.
This will involve observations of the selected participatory initiatives, and interviews with MPs, Peers, clerks and other parliamentary officials.
This focus on procedural justice – enabling the public to have meaningful engagement with Parliament, potentially having their voices heard – may be one tiny step towards rebuilding public trust in Parliament and politicians, and to move forward in a post-truth world.
Dr Catherine Bochel is a Reader in Policy Studies at the University of Lincoln, UK, and an Academic Fellow of the House of Commons.