Parliaments & Public Engagement: An outline of our Guide to Parliament

This week’s blog outlines the 9th paper of our Guide to Parliament series, in which GPG’s Associate Aileen Walker reflects on good public engagement practice for parliaments across the globe and suggest ways to build a strong relationship between parliaments and the public.  

While being the single most important representative institution in any democratic system, Parliaments remain widely misunderstood and are too often neglected by international efforts to strengthen governance. GPG’s Guide to Parliament series touches on a selection of key practices and functions of parliaments worldwide. In particular, Paper 9, written by GPG Associate Aileen Walker, examines how national parliaments interact with their citizens and how they can develop this relationship through public engagement strategies and services.  

Public engagement covers a large range of external communications activities – from simple awareness-raising to more elaborate programmes such as educational initiatives or organised visits. Public engagement can consist in reaching out to citizens in order to empower them to voice their concerns or to contribute to the decision-making process.  

The guide reminds us that a common pitfall of public engagement practice is to assume that citizens require to be perfectly educated on any specific policy matter before they can meaningfully contribute to the legislative process: this is untrue. Indeed, citizens are already experts in their own opinions and concerns. Posing expertise as a condition to civic contribution is both biased and a barrier to accessible and inclusive parliamentary outreach.   

Aileen Walker continues and explains that it is therefore vital to develop an egalitarian communications strategy that will enable parliaments to not only improve the quality of their legislative work and policymaking, as PMs produce their best work when they are informed by the views and concerns of their citizens, but also to reinforce the institution’s reputation and legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Public engagement is an essential tool to build and gather support from the electorate, preventing low voter turner and, more generally, general scepticism towards politics. It also promotes responsiveness and transparency and helps build a rapport of trust between parliaments and the people.  

In particular, parliamentary outreach is a crucial public engagement practice, in that it enables parliaments and their members to go out and meet their citizens on the constituents’ own terms in order to discuss the topics that are most pressing to them. This allows to break away from internal procedures which can be both obscure and of little interest to individual citizens. These exercises must cater to the needs of the recipients: to conduct outreach properly, parliamentary actors must become familiar with the regional or local context they seek to engage with, they must build a rapport with the public through trusted intermediaries, and the language and communication channels used must be appropriate and accessible to the audience group.  

How, then, should parliaments set out to conduct public engagement? The guide lists a few successful approaches observed across the globe, which include: dedicating resources to an information service and/or to an external communications service – which includes paying particular notice to digital communications and online media; offering educational services and activities on the role and functions of parliament specifically designed for schools, colleges, or universities; offering tours of Parliament; and working across the country to engage at the regional level. Regardless of which solutions are favoured, any strategy works best when it is coherent across the whole institution.  

Citizens should be actively sought out, and parliaments should make efforts to open up their proceedings for them. To this effect, a range of innovative practices are available: provisions can be made for public consultation stages to take place as part of the legislative process, inviting citizens to contribute their views to parliamentary work; petition systems can be put in place, including online with appropriate follow-up to allow the public to raise issues on matters that concern them; younger citizens can be invited to participate in civic life at Youth Parliaments. Entry points must be looked for and created to do away with any obscure or impenetrable aspect parliaments may hold.  

Committees are one of these entry points for citizens who wish to contribute their point of view to Parliament, allowing them to witness an issue being addressed instead of the sometimes more process-heavy other kinds of parliamentary proceedings. Opportunities for a committee to engage with the public arise at several points throughout the enquiry process, starting with the selection of the topic of enquiry into its launch and during the evidence-gathering process. At this stage, Aileen Walker reminds us that it is essential to ensure that the process is not intimidating and that it does not discourage citizens from participating. While gathering evidence, committees should show flexibility and allow contributions in a range of formats such as video submissions, surveys, questionnaires, or deliberative polls, conduced both face-to-face and remotely so as to widen the range of citizens reached. For that same purpose, committees should consider holding consultations at public meetings, or visits to areas concerned by the policy, or with relevant representative organisations. Not only does this improve the quality of information gathered, it also contributes to building trust between the institution and the people it represents. Barriers posed by literacy challenges or cultural or linguistic differences should likewise be anticipated with adequate provisions.   

Past the evidence-gathering stage, opportunities to engage with the public remain at the launch of the report and throughout the follow up process, in particular as part of the associated external communications campaign.  

Building on all of the above, it is essential to develop a coordinated engagement strategy across the institution. An overall vision must be conceptualised, with specific objectives and key messages. Audience and stakeholders must be defined, activities formulated, and resources and priorities must be allocated. Appropriate channels and platforms must be identified in order to select the modes of communication which will best deliver specific types of messages to specific audiences. Finally, an action plan must be outlined as well as proper evaluation processes to monitor the efficiency of the strategy.   

The guide warns that there is however no one-size-fits all template for this. Parliaments must account for their own context as they build a communication plan which will be applicable by every one of their department in a way that is reproductible and realistic – in particular regarding financial, infrastructure-, and skill-related constraints.  

A full checklist on building a communication strategy is available in Guide to Parliament – Paper 9: Parliament and Public Engagement which we encourage you to read for more details and examples of successful parliamentary communications across the globe. You may visit our website to find more Guide to Parliament papers, on topics such as Post-Legislative Scrutiny, Human Rights, Gender Equality, Financial Oversight, and more.