Recommending a more participatory future – the Citizen Participation and Petitions Committee’s Public Participation Inquiry

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In October 2022 we published a blog looking at the background to the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee’s inquiry into public participation, which set out what needed to be done “to make sure that the views and opinions of everyone in Scotland are included in the work of the Parliament”.

Since then, the Citizens’ Panel that the Committee agreed to set up formed, met and shared its recommendations in a report. The Committee also considered the recommendations and published its own interim report.

This blog looks at some of those recommendations, and examples which might give an idea of how enacting those recommendations could look.

The Citizens’ Panel

The charity Involve describe a Citizens’ Panel as “a large, demographically representative group of citizens regularly used to assess public preferences and opinions”.

In this instance, a representative group of 19 randomly selected people from across Scotland (“the Panel”), who were broadly representative of Scotland’s population, took part in two deliberative weekends, plus multiple online sessions, in October and November 2022.

The group set out to answer:

How can the Scottish Parliament ensure that diverse voices and communities from all parts of Scotland influence our work?

At the end of the second weekend, the Panel had unanimously agreed on 17 recommendations, and had commissioned the Scottish Parliament’s Participation and Communities Team to include these in a report, which also contains more detail on the makeup of the Panel and the deliberative process.

Panel and Committee reports so far

On Wednesday 14 December 2022, members of the Panel presented their report to the Committee in a public meeting. The Committee then considered the recommendations and published its own interim report on the inquiry on Friday 16 December, alongside a deliberative consultation on the Your Priorities digital platform.

The Panel’s recommendations

The 17 recommendations of the Panel are grouped into four themes – community engagement, how the Parliament uses deliberative democracy, public involvement in Parliamentary business, and communication and education.

The recommendations are broad. Some are more familiar territory: enhancing, expanding, institutionalising, and marketing the types of work already taking place on engagement, education, and participation, and even reviewing models previously in place like Parliament Days.

Other recommendations introduce ideas which are totally new to the Scottish Parliament, like legislating for deliberative approaches, enhancing the powers of the Presiding Officer, and introducing a people’s question time.

It’s this second group of recommendations that this blog will explore, seeing what has been done elsewhere to give an idea of the experience the Committee and Scottish Parliament might draw on moving forward.

Recommendation 7 – legislate for deliberative democracy

Recommendation 7 says the Scottish Parliament should:

Legislate for Deliberative Democracy in order to ensure that:
– diverse voices and communities from all parts of Scotland influence Scottish Parliament’s work, and
– the public are consistently informed and consulted on local and national issues.

The use of Citizens’ Assemblies, ‘Mini-Publics’ and the like is becoming more widespread, including in legislatures. The OECD set out a useful overview of different methods and approaches in a 2020 publication, Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions, and in 2021 it recommended ‘eight ways to institutionalise deliberative democracy’. We published a blog on Citizens’ Assemblies from a Scottish perspective in November 2021. Work in the field has continued to progress, but so far very few places have enshrined this in legislation or formal procedure.


A notable forerunner is Belgium, which has, as well as a bicameral Federal legislature, a structure of regional and community governments and legislatures representing it’s multilingual and culturally diverse makeup. The Ostbelgien Parliament, which scrutinises the Government of Belgium’s German-speaking federal community, passed legislation in February 2019 to establish a permanent citizen council with the power to mandate and set the agenda for citizens’ assemblies. The Parliament is not legally bound to accept recommendations, but procedurally committees and ministers must give a statement to explain whether they will implement a recommendation, and if not, why it has been rejected. Then in December 2019, both the Brussels Regional Parliament and the French-speaking Parliament of Brussels amended their rules of procedure to establish Deliberative Committees, made up of a mix of 15 elected MPs and 45 citizens. Up to three deliberative Committees are held a year, formed in part on a petition basis and the collection of 1000+ signatures through a shared online platform. Standing Committees have up to six months to consider recommendations. In written evidence to the CPPP Committee, Professor Stephen Elstub explained:

“the process has secured cross-party support so that it is not seen as a partisan programme. This was achieved as the process was located in parliament where all parties are represented so they feel that it will not benefit only one party.”

written evidence to the CPPP Committee, Professor Stephen Elstub


More recent examples of permanent models include the UK’s first permanent Citizens’ Assembly, established by Newham Council in London in July 2021, and L’assemblée Citoyenne de Paris in France in October 2021 (an extended version of the Ostbelgian model).


It’s worth noting that these were not the first examples of permanent deliberative bodies – The ‘Observatorio de la Ciudad’, implemented in Madrid’s City Council, was the first to be legislated for, mere months before the Belgian examples. Unfortunately, due to local elections and a change in leadership, the initiative was short-lived. There were several reasons cited for its failure, but research by NewDemocracy suggests the biggest was a “lack of joint ownership from elected representatives across political parties”, which puts Professor Elstub’s comments on the Belgian models into perspective.

Supporting research

In support of a legislative (or similar) approach, in a commissioned report for the Council of Europe, authors Andy Williamson and Jordi Barrat said, “deliberative methods must become normative tools within the policy cycle and deliberative initiatives properly resourced and planned.”.   They recommended that:

  • Enabling legislation (or formal guidelines) may be needed to define the scope and requirements for deliberative initiatives, how they work, their role and powers.
  • Enabling legislation may be required to permit access to potential participants.
  • Understand the resources required from the public sector side and plan for the acquisition of new skills (such as facilitation).

Recommendation 13 – Presiding Officer’s powers

The panel recommended:

Give the Presiding Officer the power to compel MSPs to give an answer to all questions asked: that is, a direct reply that is relevant to the question. This should include a process for a deferred answer if an immediate answer cannot be given. This will improve public trust and engagement. 

The Panel members explained to the Committee that some of them couldn’t see why it’s possible for a minister to not fully answer a question in the Chamber, and that they thought it should be possible for the Presiding Officer to make this happen.

The Scottish Presiding Officer

In Scotland, the Presiding Officer is required to act impartially and take account of the interests of all members equally. This includes chairing meetings, deciding on how long MSPs can speak for, and selecting the questions asked at First Minister’s Question Time. The Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament set out the role in detail, and explain that when a question has been raised about whether the rules of the Parliament have been interpreted or applied correctly (known as a Point of Order), the Presiding Officer can give a ruling on any such question.

If Recommendation 13 was to be adopted, it may change the nature of Scotland’s Presiding Officer’s role. The only other example SPICe is aware of where similar powers exist is in the Republic of Ireland.

The Irish Ceann Comhairle

In the Dáil Éireann, members can appeal to the Ceann Comhairle (the equivalent of our Presiding Officer) when they feel an answer has not fully addressed a question. If the Ceann Comhairle agrees, they can compel the member of government to respond in writing. This change originated with the Irish Constitutional Convention of 2012 and is set out in the Oireachtas Standing Orders at Paragraph 54, and applies to both oral and written topical questions.

The process set out involves an appeal being made to the Ceann Comhairle, either during a meeting or within four working days of a question being answered. Should the Ceann Comhairle find that a member of government hasn’t complied with adequacy rules, they would convey this in writing and the minister would then have to reply by 12:30 on the following day. The provisions under Standing Order 54 also set the rules on amending the Official Report of the Dail, and on the Ceann Comhairle reporting on the use of the provisions. SPICe has only found one such report, suggesting that the powers may be little used, but more detail might emerge as the CPPP Committee explores the Citizens’ Panel recommendations.

It’s worth highlighting that there were some changes made to the way questions are asked in the Chamber at the Scottish Parliament following the Commission on Parliamentary Reform which reported in 2017. This included giving the Presiding Officer more power over selecting questions, but not over compelling answers.

Recommendation 14

The Panel thought the Scottish Parliament should:

Schedule specific time in the debating Chamber for individual public questions to be asked.

A 2022 review of Question Time in the European Parliament and selected national parliaments gives no examples of there being a fixed format model of public questions being taken in the debating chamber.

There has, however, been instances of Committees seeking public input into both questions and work programmes. The Scottish Parliament’s COVID-19 Committee used the Your Priorities platform in 2021 to crowdsource questions on COVID-19, and the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee did the same to gather the public’s questions about the National Care Service (Scotland) Bill.

The approach of using Twitter to crowdsource questions in the #Ask format has also been well used in committees at Westminster. In a 2019 report on ‘Smarter Select Committees’, Nesta referenced the Education Committee’s use of the technique which led to them receiving over 5000 Tweets with suggested questions for then-Education Secretary Michael Gove. It said:

“This proved a basic though effective way of improving the breadth and relevance of questions asked, while drawing attention to the inquiry. However, some interviewees mentioned that #AskGove drew attention from MPs mostly for its novelty value, rather than for the fact that it was a meaningful effort to draw in more relevant perspectives and questions.”

What next?

The Committee is now asking the public to share their views on the Panel’s 17 recommendations to help them understand the opportunities and challenges they present, and to prioritise them. If you had any thoughts on the recommendations above, and want to explore the others, head over to Your Priorities before 10 February 2023 to take part. The Committee believes it’s important that they also hear directly from MSPs, MSPs’ staff and SPCB staff on what they think of the recommendations as well, so is also encouraging them to take part.

As for SPICe, we’ll continue to provide any research updates on this milestone work as it progresses.

Ailsa Burn-Murdoch, Senior Researcher, Financial Scrutiny Unit