Putting public engagement at the heart of parliamentary renewal

Recent developments for the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster (R&R) have taken the programme forward, but one important issue remains unclear: public engagement.

Current plans indicate that billions of public money will be spent, at the end of which Parliament will look much the same as it does now. Without public engagement at the heart of Restoration and Renewal, the project risks fuelling public frustration with parliamentary processes, and could be perceived as yet another example of the widening gap between citizens and their representatives.

The government’s response to the joint committee that scrutinised the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, the publication of the bill itself, and the launch of the public consultation on plans for the Northern Estate Programme (NEP) have done little to allay these concerns. The government’s response rejected the joint committee’s central recommendation to insert a statutory duty in relation to public engagement within the legislation to ensure “public engagement with and understanding of parliament”. Published on the same the day, the NEP public consultation presented the proposed temporary decant chamber for the House of Commons that is a near replica to the original. Moreover, the consultation appears to gloss over the important role of the chamber itself and focuses instead on the wider refurbishment.

So far, R&R and the NEP have fallen to the temptation of emphasising ‘restoration’ and protecting the sanctity of the past, rather than promoting a focus on ‘renewal’ that should look to a future and acknowledges how society has changed in terms of both diversity and expectations.

Part of the challenge is that elected politicians have historically been reluctant to be seen by the public to be ‘feathering their own nests’, and would rather take a quieter 'patch and mend' approach than engage with a suspicious public about the necessary financial costs of maintaining parliament. There is however risk of a far greater cost if politicians do nothing to meaningfully engage people in a restoration project of this magnitude.

So far, R&R has fallen to the temptation of emphasising ‘restoration’ and protecting the sanctity of the past, rather than promoting a focus on ‘renewal’

Churchill famously said that ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’. R&R therefore provides a vital opportunity to address the architecture and culture of a building which - of course in Churchill’s time - was designed to deliver an adversarial, remote and traditionally masculine way of ‘doing’ politics. Failure to acknowledge the importance of ‘renewal’ for R&R is a failure to engage with the public on the future of their democracy, and to open up the processes of parliament to the people it serves.

Studies have shown that proactive public engagement with large and complex infrastructure projects are more likely to result in their success. This is why in 2018 the Institute for Government published their report 'How to Transform Infrastructure Decision Making in the UK', recommending that the Government create a Commission for Public Engagement for infrastructure projects as it would be “an extremely cost-effective way of giving local communities a genuine opportunity to shape infrastructure decisions”.

With ‘public consultation’ on the Northern Estate equivalent to a closed comment box and a phone number – what would a truly participatory effort to build trust and involve people in R&R look like? Here we provide some options drawing from the best of recent democratic innovations and foresight methods.

Crowdsourcing ideas and experiences

One option would be the use of crowdsourcing with digital platforms, a growing method used by governments around the world, and particularly well suited to gathering knowledge where audiences are well defined. Engaging with parliamentary staff would be a good first step, indeed the March 2019 report suggested that it should be a duty to consult with staff in Parliament throughout the life of the R&R project, and that if the Sponsor Body failed to do this it would “be failing in one of its most basic and essential tasks”.

In the case of UK Parliament, there are multiple trade unions, charities, interest groups (for example around workplace equality) or staff members - from security guards, cleaners and caterers to Select Committee engagement staff located around the country - who will have useful knowledge about how the space could be better designed around their needs, from accessibility to remote working options. Although ‘physical’ ideas boxes have already been placed around parliamentary buildings, there’s an obvious opportunity to use digital to extend reach and efficiency in searching for relevant ideas and experiences.

Creative methods for large-scale engagement

Beyond this, engaging the public more widely raises challenges around how to motivate people to take part. Here the use of games is a useful way to both educate and engage people in deciding what kind of future they might want to live in. The University of Cambridge used Minecraft to engage young people in the redesign of a public space.

A bigger project led by Newcastle University called Newcastle 2065 aimed to reverse civic disenfranchisement and support strategic planning for the future of the city. It used a range of traditional foresight methods, such as scenario planning, combined with creative methods. This involved an exhibition of different architectural plans, and models to engage and inspire people with future visions of the city. Participants could leave post-its with their feedback on the wall, and pin drop areas they love in the city, or places they think should remain protected. The exercise has since evolved into an Innovate UK ‘Urban Living Partnership’ pilot project that received £1.2 million to develop new initiatives.

Participatory budgeting and planning

More ambitiously, R&R could learn from the growing movement in participatory budgeting, which is being adopted by cities and national governments as a way of involving people in important decisions. Examples like Madrid and Paris - the latter allocating 500 million Euros for citizen projects over five years - show how participatory budgeting is as much an educational process as it is a decision-making exercise. France has also led the way through its Commission Nationale de Debat Public – a national panel made up of specialists and the members of the public – to steer multi-billion Euro construction projects.

In both cases, online platforms are used to collect ideas, while a wide range of face-to-face activities take place across towns or cities, from deliberative workshops to educational sessions that teach people about how to campaign and gather support for their proposals.

Learning from these methods, what if a portion of the R&R budget was given to public engagement on the future of parliamentary democracy in the UK? In order to ensure that those who do not have access or are able to engage with digital tools are able to participate, constituency offices could also be given resource to set up street stalls and gather ideas and experiences from people in their local area, making the process visible and accessible.

Improving the scale and ambition of public engagement

Methods for public engagement will vary depending on the purpose of the task at hand. Some methods will be necessary for involving people in more instrumental decisions about R&R, whereas we’ll need rather different approaches for inviting wider visions of the future of democracy. The latter will require public engagement that can help stretch people’s imaginations to thinking beyond timescales that policymakers are used to (we have to assume another parliamentary restoration of this scale won’t happen for at least another 150 years). A promising area is the growing research and practice in participatory futures that are increasingly being placed at the heart of government decision-making world-wide, and have become a useful method of exploring uncertainty in a systematic and inclusive manner.

Public contributions from these efforts shouldn’t be stowed away as a closed survey or in an email inbox - they should be part of a large-scale, national conversation about how we want our most iconic democratic institution to operate in the 21st century and beyond.

Whatever approach is taken, public contributions from these efforts shouldn’t be stowed away as a closed survey or in an email inbox - they should be part of a large-scale, national conversation about how we want our most iconic democratic institution to operate in the 21st century and beyond. A project of this size deserves a consultation at a similar scale as the recent Grand Debat - which attracted two million online contributions over a period of three months. These are now being made available as open data and analysed as part of ‘hackathons’, hosted by the French National Assembly, where teams compete to create visualisations and tools to extract more detailed insights from the results.

What all these examples help to reveal is the significant opportunity for the Restoration and Renewal Programme to play a positive role in closing the widening gulf that appears to have emerged between the governors and the governed. A meaningful public conversation about the future of their parliament will help ensure that the R&R project will be able to deliver on its twin objectives of protecting the physical infrastructure of the building, while also delivering a parliament that is ‘fit for the future’.


Matthew Flinders

Professor Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. He is also President of the Political Studie…

Alexandra Anderson

Alex is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield, where she is working on the Designing…

Theo Bass

Theo Bass

Theo Bass

Senior Researcher, Government Innovation

Theo was a Senior Researcher in Nesta's Research, Analysis and Policy Team

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