Participation in Legislatures: Meanings and Justifications

In a blog from our recent Making Sense of Parliaments conference, Thales Torres Quintão develops a framework for the justifications and meanings in the development of participatory policies in legislatures.


Over recent years, Parliaments have been developing diverse forms of public engagement. Public engagement involves different tools and purposes, from the provision of information to the participation of citizens in legislative discussions. Recognizing that public engagement is a broad phenomenon and that it includes a participation element, this paper focuses on the latter. Most studies on participatory innovation tend to focus on the Executive branch, since this power is directly responsible to deliver public services, and so has more capacity to give “answers” to the participatory process (return of participation). Therefore, it is necessary to discuss the meanings and justifications to the formulation of participatory innovations in the Legislature, i.e., designs that amplify the vocalization of citizens in the decision-making process. Based on a literature review, we develop a theoretical framework to support the understanding of the participatory engagement by Parliaments. Thus, the aim of this paper is to frame participation inside Legislatures. This framework consists of two dimensions: 1) strategic; 2) normative. These dimensions are: analytical (different schools of researches) and purposeful (related to different goals). They are ideal-types and they are not necessarily exclusive, although are based on distinct principles. This is part of a wider PhD dissertation which analyses participatory engagement in sub-national legislatures in Brazil.

Strategic Dimension

The first dimension, labelled as strategic, relates to the process of institutionalization of Parliament and the sustaining of political legitimacy. This dimension focuses more on the institution and the achievement of more political power. Therefore, participation can serve a strategic-practical purpose.

First of all, focusing on the process of the institutionalization, there is an ongoing process into the Legislature in order to make it a more active institution inside the policy cycle and more assertive in its relationship with the Executive (be less reactive of the Executive) (Santos, Almeida 2011). The intention is to develop an institutional autonomy within this branch, and a process of professionalization of its organizational structures (Polsby, 2004).

For that, it becomes crucial a priority in the legislative organization to strengthen the performance of parliamentary committees, in order to achieve an informational model. This model highlights institutional needs and parliamentary incentives for acquiring policy expertise (Krehbiel, 1992). Committee work enables Legislatures to act more as a deliberative body, stimulating public debate, as well as generating greater information resources for parliamentary decision (the increase of expertise). This phenomenon has the aim to reduce the processes of uncertainty regarding the consequences of political decisions, and informational asymmetry between Parliament and the Executive (Almeida, 2016; Rocha, 2011; Santos, 2006). In other words, the Legislature would be less reliant on the flows of information provided by the Executive.

Committees also have the capacity to develop mediation between Legislature and society through public hearing or petitions, for example. Moreover, participatory innovations developed by the Legislature could enable a greater control of the information produced, with less interference of external powers.  In other words, other powers would have less capacity to produce informational biases. Therefore, participatory spaces in the Parliament help to promote a greater institutionalization of this branch, strengthen the system of parliamentary committees (they are the arena that will receive the inputs from the citizens), and boost the political-informational capital in the political process.

Secondly, this dimension of public engagement also relates with the endeavour to improvement of legislatures’ public image. The aim being to increase their levels of trust and, consequently, the legitimacy of the house (Fuks, 2016; IPU, 2012; Leston-Bandeira, 2012). This kind of effort has been even stronger in the context of the crisis of democratic representation.

This process seeks to modify society’s perception of Parliament in order to improve its credibility. Participatory engagements show to the society that the Legislature aims to develop interconnections with them, i.e., that this institution is a genuine space to listen to their demands and is keen on to help to find a solution for them.

Furthermore, the implementation of participatory engagement tends to diminish the instabilities of the political system, because the preferences and conflicts would be received through the institutional participation. The release of tensions and the institutional resolution of conflicts are important tasks carried out by the Legislature, which help to maintain and to provide support in order to consolidate the institutional system and the democratic regime (Norton, 1990; Pitkin, 1967).

Normative Dimension

The second dimension denominated as normative focuses more on the expansion of the concept of representation and the enhancement of the public debate, and it is labelled as such because it assumes a specific normative value to participatory engagement. The creation of participatory innovations would foster the relational practice that involves the political representation, with a close relationship between representatives and represented.

The development of public engagement with Parliament promotes symbolic representation (Leston-Bandeira, 2016; Pitkin, 1967): to use symbols to make something present. In symbolic representation, the most important aspect is the identification by citizens of parliamentary symbols of representation, which are embedded with affective meanings. Initiatives such as participatory spaces, educational and cultural projects, and activities that promote the historical memory of the Parliament stimulate the creation of a comprehension of the Legislature as an arena to deal with conflict, whilst also fostering its importance for democracy. There is, therefore, a promotion of the institutional representation and the transparency of the Legislature’s actions (Judge, Leston-Bandeira, 2017).

Within this same dimension, the objective is also to endorse the deliberative functions that seek to improve representativeness through publicity, recognition, and proximity of the representative with the represented. First of all, there is the principle of the politics of presence inside Parliament. This principle defends that Parliament needs to amplify its representativeness by incorporating minority groups, which  are then able to make claims directly to this institution (Mansbridge, 1999a; Philips, 1995). Therefore, social perspectives that tend to be silenced in the Legislature would become visible during parliamentary discussions (Young, 2000). Secondly, there is an approach that intends to defend a greater representative capacity based on the deliberative quality. Indeed, representation can be related to the improvement of public deliberation principally in parliamentary committees, because these arenas are considered as a genuine deliberative forum, where it is possible to display stronger deliberative virtues, such as listening, reflection and exchange of arguments (Steenbergen et al, 2003; Stenier et al, 2004). The major principles of these theories are: all-affected-interests (mobilization and selection of the participants); equity and not only equality; public justification and transparency; and discursive accountability (representation of different discourses in this formal institution) (Dryzek, Niemeyer, 2008; Goodin, 2004; Moscrop, Warren, 2016).

Other studies demonstrate the necessity to conceptualise these public inputs into a deliberative system perspective. The institutional arrangement should be receptive and porous to various  informal communication expressions such as protests, boycotts, campaigns in social media, etc., which take place outside of the Legislature. This deliberative system would improve the public deliberation and also foster the social and political inclusion within Parliament (Hendriks, Kay, 2017; Mendonça, Cunha, 2014).

Finally, participation in Parliament, an institution with low trust and recognition by citizens, could stimulate political education (Pateman, 2012). As Mansbridge wrote (1999b), by involving citizens more directly in the governance process, it makes them “better citizens”, because this process can achieve better and more legitimate decisions and also improve parliamentary representation (better governance).

Final Considerations

The first dimension here labelled as strategic focuses more on Parliament as an institution, and the aim is to achieve a greater effectiveness of its works, access and control to information, and to improve its public image (technical legitimacy). However, the normative dimension aims to qualify and to amplify political representation. Its focus is substantive legitimacy (new political issues, discursive accountability, politics of presence), and to stress the importance of Parliament and of participation for the process of democracy building.

The table below synthesizes the two dimensions analysed and the justifications and meanings for the development of participatory policies in Legislatures.

Quintao table 1


Thales Torres Quintão is PhD Candidate in Politics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais – UFMG / Brazil; visiting scholar at the University of Leeds (2018-2019).


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