Turning the lens inwards – the Citizen Participation and Petitions Committee’s Public Participation Inquiry

Reading Time: 5 minutes

At the Scottish Parliament, the main role of committees is holding the Scottish Government to account, for instance by examining bills, and deciding on amendments to proposed laws. SPICe supports this process by providing research briefings. It’s about looking outward.

Part of that examination process is talking to the right people – those who will be affected by changes, or who have an expert understanding of the issue.

That’s where one piece of current scrutiny work gets interesting…

The Citizen Participation and Petitions Committee (“the Committee”) has recognised that reaching those “right people” can be a challenge. It said, in introducing its inquiry into public participation, that it wants “to make sure that the views and opinions of everyone in Scotland are included in the work of the Parliament”.

In May 2022, the Committee asked people to share their views on whether the Scottish Parliament’s work involves, reflects, and meets the needs of the full range of communities it represents.

This is an unusual inquiry, which turns the focus of scrutiny inwards.

In this blog, the first in a series looking at this work and its impacts, we set out

The inquiry process

To reach as many people as possible, the Committee used various approaches to gather evidence. It ran two different surveys between May and July 2022. A short survey aimed to find out about the people who have or have not been involved in the Scottish Parliament’s work, and their experiences. A longer survey allowed people to share their views on what can be done to improve public participation in more detail.

The Committee also held 10 focus group sessions, using various formats, which gave people a chance to share their views directly with politicians. These groups were chosen because they included people who might be less likely to get involved in the Parliament’s work, which includes people from minority ethnic groups, people living on a low income and people with disabilities.

In addition, the Committee held some online drop-in sessions that were run at different times of day to ensure people had the opportunity to participate at times that worked for them. If they preferred, people were able to email or write to the Committee.

The next step in the inquiry will be to use the evidence heard to date to inform a Citizens’ Panel taking place in October and November 2022. The panel will be made up of 22 Scottish citizens who are eligible to vote in Scottish Parliament general elections, chosen via random stratified sampling. This approach means they will be broadly representative of the wider Scottish electorate in terms of age, gender, place of residence, ethnicity, and socio-economic factors.


As well as having a broad, multi-disciplinary delivery team within the Parliament, we’re using external expertise. In planning the Citizens’ Panel, we recruited a steering board of public participation experts. This means that before the event has even taken place, the question we ask of the panel and the way we do it has been reviewed by specialists in this kind of work.

We will also be using an external evaluator to give feedback on our approach and monitor the impact of the Citizen’s Panel on the outcomes of the inquiry.

The aim of all of this is to make sure that we are doing all we can to reach the right people, that we are taking a collaborative and accessible approach, and that we are being transparent and open about the way we use evidence to have a meaningful impact.

The evidence to date

SPICe analyses the evidence heard and presents it to the Committee, as well as working on publicly available summaries. We worked on this over the summer and have produced two summaries. One summary covers a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the “short survey” run by the Committee. The second summary looks at the entirety of the evidence heard – representing over 460 voices!

So, for the sake of accessibility, and to support the Citizens’ Panel, we also produced a summary version using infographics. This shows the types of person people said were likely to be excluded, barriers to participation and the relationships between them, and the key messages from findings. A plain text version of this was published, along with both graphic and plain text versions in Polish, Arabic, Gaelic, Ukrainian and Urdu. The full package of published evidence is available on the Committee’s website.

One of the illustrations from our booklet – the relationships between different barriers to participation.

Key messages

The key messages we found were:

  • Although people with protected characteristics are underrepresented in the work of the Scottish Parliament, people said those with a low-income are most likely to be underrepresented.
  • People from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t feel that engaging with the Scottish Parliament is worthwhile.
  • People often struggle to engage in the work of the Scottish Parliament as they don’t feel representatives reflect them, or their communities needs and concerns.
  • Education has a vital role to play in breaking down barriers to participation in the democratic process.
  • Cross-party Groups are integral to the involvement of minority groups and those with protected characteristics in the work of the Scottish Parliament.
  • The Scottish Parliament needs to do more to tell people about its engagement and participation work, as those we reach are positive about the experience.  
  • Strengthening trust is essential to successfully involving people in the work of the Scottish Parliament.
  • Breaking down barriers to participation will improve the diversity of participation and opinions in the work of the Scottish Parliament.

Understanding participative democracy

One of the things we heard a lot about in evidence and expect to hear more on in the coming months, is different models and types of participative democracy. This is where involving people in the work of the Scottish Parliament goes beyond just asking them to share their views, and towards having them take an active role in the democratic process. The Citizens’ Panel, where we hope it is the public that will help form the outcomes of the Committee’s work, is one example.

There are a lot of words and phrases used within this work that might be unfamiliar to many, so there a couple of education sources we’d recommend.

The Institutionalising Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Working Group, commissioned by the Scottish Government, set out a really useful glossary as part of their March 2022 report.

Another handy source is Participedia, a “global network and crowdsourcing platform for researchers, educators, practitioners, policymakers, activists, and anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovations”.

What’s next – the Scottish Parliament as a leader in participation?

In the evidence that the Committee gathered, one statement on the future stands out.

Jane Suiter (Dublin City University) suggested that:

It would be useful to produce an overarching strategy for inclusion in parliament. This could begin with the adoption by the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament, local government and the Open Government steering group of collective principles and values with a view to institutionalising participatory and deliberative democracy.

Jane Suiter, Dublin City University

And went on to say:

Parliament could be even more ambitious and proactively seek a scrutiny role over government-initiated citizens’ assemblies.

Jane Suiter, Dublin City University

Whatever the future of public participation in the work of the Scottish Parliament holds, it’s clear that this ground-breaking inquiry represents a real opportunity to have the people of Scotland shape how the Parliament engages with them, and the implications for those of us behind the scenes are both big, and exciting.

Watch this space for our next blog in this series, in December, which will share how the Citizens’ Panel went, and its findings.

Ailsa Burn-Murdoch

Senior Researcher, SPICe