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Interview with Fiona Booth

Fiona Booth is Chief Executive of the Hansard Society. Fiona’s background is in writing teaching support material for the Political and Social Education and Citizenship curriculums for various charities. She is also an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

The Hansard Society works to connect citizens to the institutions that represent them. This includes Government and Parliament. Does dialogue and engagement need to be different to match the distinct purposes of the two bodies?

Yes. Most of the work of the Hansard Society concentrates on Parliament. That’s where citizens have their direct link through their MP. Dialogue with Parliament can be more personalised than it can through Government, either through constituency MPs at a local level or through evidence-giving, whether on or off-line. With the range of methods available, it’s never been easier to feed your opinions to your MP or to the House of Lords through giving evidence, public meetings, emails, twitter and others.

Engagement with Government is very different. While Parliament is about scrutinising legislation and holding Government to account, Government is about making policy. Government engagement, therefore, is about citizens influencing policy. Here, we are arguing for more effective enforcement and monitoring of the code of practice on consultation, and for consultations on legislation to be more structured and focused, and clearer on choices and priorities. One of the biggest issues with Government consultation is that it is about influencing policy rather than determining it. Sometimes false expectations can be raised and that’s something that needs to be managed very carefully.

However, both need the views of citizens to work properly. Two research projects on Law in the Making and Making Better Law examined the legislative process and found that lots of different influences work to change policy and law, and Government and Parliament need to recognise that they do not have a monopoly on expertise.

What are the barriers to participation with Parliament?

When asking for more engagement from Parliament, it’s crucial to remember that the role of an MP isn’t just about allowing their constituents’ opinions to be heard. A much greater role is actually detailed scrutiny of legislation. There’s a mismatch between what Parliamentarians should be doing and how much time and resources they have. A project we did following a year in the life of MPs, from the 2005 intake and then the 2010 intake found that the biggest problem which came out was the conflict that MPs face between their roles –their party role, their constituency role and their Parliamentary role. But they consistently say that they do not have enough time and resources to put towards the scrutiny of legislation which is absolutely vital.

Another more basic barrier to engagement is that a lot of people don’t want to be actively involved. Our audit of political engagement found that only 42% of people want to be very or fairly involved in decision-making at a national level. And that needs to be taken into consideration.

However, there are still a lot of people who do want to be involved. A representative democracy like ours requires that people know about politics and understand the role of political institutions in their lives. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. When we talk to people about engagement, and mention the range of ways to get involved, people really have no idea. That’s part of a bigger issue about political literacy, which needs to start in schools. Citizenship education is actually under threat at the moment with the curriculum review, which we have been quite vocal about. Young people need to graduate from school knowing how to form an opinion and knowing how to have their opinions heard. An informed citizenry is one of the enabling aspects to any really participatory society.

There are also barriers of perception – citizens thinking they’re not going to be heard and engagement is just a box-ticking exercise. The key to overcoming that barrier is full-circle feedback. There’s a lot of Government consultation, but often it just ends there - people need to be told what has happened with the information, what’s going to happen next and the reason why the decision was made. What matters is that people understand the process.

What progress is being made in how Parliament is engaging with the public?

One of the positive steps recently is that many Select Committees and All-Party Parliamentary Groups are recognising the value of holding joint inquiries and having public hearings outside Westminster. If this way of working were to be extended, it would be easier for the public to see their own lives reflected in the working of Parliament. We’ve also got a speaker who is willing to step on toes, who has actually set up his own advisory council on public engagement. They’re looking at ways to allow direct public questions to be put to committees, and providing for public recorded comment on some areas of Parliamentary business, which is real progress. Parliament is also looking at other technologies – how they can allow contributions via online forums and social media, through video and audio recordings, and interactive meetings. Its outreach programme is trying to enable those most affected by an issue to share their experiences with Select Committees, communicating with Parliament in a structured, but unmediated, way.

Parliament can be slow moving, but it’s getting there, and I think members are much more willing to think about what they need to be doing as an institution, rather than just as individuals. That’s quite exciting.

Are there any areas of good practice which can be learnt from?

I think the work that Scotland and Wales are doing, with the Scottish Public Petitions Committee and the Welsh Assembly, are examples of good practice. The Scottish e-petitioning system seems to be popular among the public in Scotland as around two thirds of petitions are submitted as e-petitions. In the Scottish system, the Public Petitions Committee considers every admissible petition, often writing to the Scottish Government or other public bodies to ask them questions about issues arising during the petitioning process. The Welsh Assembly also has a Petitions Committee to consider admissible petitions. It can ask for more information from the petitioner, the Welsh Assembly Government, and other relevant people and organisations. The Petitions Committee can either carry out its own enquiry or refer the petition to another committee. These seem like good examples to follow.

A lot of the science and technology issues which Sciencewise-ERC address are issues that don’t necessarily impact on people’s lives immediately. However, you’re saying that people really need to see the way that decisions are affecting their lives and engage on that level. How can Parliament and Government overcome this tension and help citizens see how science and technology is relevant to them?

I do think that Government and Parliament need to engage with citizens on the topics they want to engage with – whatever they might be. However, it is important that people know about politics and understand the roles of political institutions in their lives. Only then can they make an informed decision about whether they want to be involved. We must be prepared that, even with this knowledge, their decision might still be that they don’t want to be engaged – people working in science and technology engagement need to recognise that that’s OK.

One attempt to engage with the public has been the recent e-petitions initiative. What lessons can we take from it so far?

E-petitions are definitely a step in the right direction. However, there have been some problems, particularly in terms of the ways in which MPs respond to these petitions. The core problem is the expectations from the public and the media about the impact of the petitions. E-petitions sold themselves as an easy way to influence Government policy, when, in reality, they’re not. Although Government manages the site, the petitions that reach the 100,000 threshold go to the Parliamentary Committee for consideration. And Parliament does not operate in the same way as a business. It’s made up of two houses with different rules, 650 elected representatives who take very different views on issues, three major parties and many others; Parliament would be unwise to guarantee anything that it cannot deliver.

Although the motives were right and their hearts were in the right place, parliamentarians just didn’t think through clearly enough how the public engagement model was going to interact with the way that the institution works. The result was that there has been no real long-term follow up, so that an initiative set up to enhance public engagement with Parliament may, in fact, have the opposite effect by building up expectations and then failing to fulfil them.

Do you think that your work highlights tensions between representative and participatory democracy?

Definitely. We are strong supporters of representative democracy. The danger of direct democracy (where people vote on issues directly such as in a referendum) is that it shifts the balance to those with the loudest voices, or the most time and/or money. Sometimes in direct democracy, powerful interests, emotions and short-term concerns hold sway to the detriment of other core democratic values. When Members of Parliament represent their constituents’ needs, they must take into account and balance the views of their electorate – for those who voted for them and for those who didn’t. It’s built on the principle that democracy requires strong, legitimate institutions, empowered by the popular and collective consent of the people. The decisions that our representatives make won’t always be popular, and won’t have the endorsement of everyone because that’s the nature of representative democracy. Participatory democracy has a critical place within all of this, but it must work with representative democracy, not against it.