Embedding Deliberative Democracy in a Participatory Parliament

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After a year and a half of factfinding and commissioning a full citizens’ panel to explore public participation in the Scottish Parliament, the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee published its final report and recommendations on 12 September 2023.

This blog will focus on the Committee’s aspirations for institutionalising deliberative democracy, the first steps being taken in exploring and realising that, and key risks in the coming years.

Because of the length of the blog, we have included a table of contents for navigation.

Embedding public participation in the work of the parliament

We’ve previously blogged about how the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee (CPPPC) used a citizens’ panel in October and November 2022 to explore public participation in the work of the Scottish Parliament. This included a group of 19 randomly selected people from across Scotland, who were broadly representative of Scotland’s population, coming together to answer the question “How can the Scottish Parliament ensure that diverse voices and communities from all parts of Scotland influence our work?”.

In its report, the Committee responded to the 17 recommendations made last December by the Citizens’ Panel and set out the Committee’s vision for effectively embedding deliberative democracy in the work of the Scottish Parliament. The Committee agreed to the majority of the panel’s recommendations, at least in principle.

Most significantly, the Committee concluded that the Parliament should use Citizens’ Panels more regularly to help committees with scrutiny work, and made several recommendations for pilot and preparatory work, with certain guiding principles, with the expectation that the Committee will recommend a model that the Parliament can use after the 2026 election.

The Committee also agreed to several of the Panel’s recommendations around other ways that people can find out what the Parliament is doing, how to get involved, and reducing barriers to participation. There were recommendations that the Citizens’ Panel made around trust and how the Parliament works which the Committee did not support, however it did recommend that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee look into other ways to explore and address these concerns.

Engagement, participation and deliberation – an explainer

In this blog, and in Committee reports, we use the words engagement, participation, and deliberation. These are all different levels of a similar process, but they can become easily confused. This is what we mean when we use these words:

Engagement – any time where the Parliament engages with citizens. Participation and deliberation are both forms of engagement. Put broadly, engagement can occur on a scale – from informing and educating at one end, through consulting and participation, all the way to deliberation at the other.

Participation (including public participation or citizen participation) – methods that allow participants to contribute to policy-making and empowers citizens to take action. Participation is often possible on a larger scale, involving more people. Examples of participation include polling, idea collection, surveys, and participatory budgeting.

Deliberation – methods which focus more on discussion and debate between citizens and other stakeholders to reach a decision or agreement. A deliberative approach would typically involve smaller groups, and a recruitment process that aims to create a representative sample of a wider population. Examples of deliberative practice would include mini-publics, people’s panels or citizens’ assemblies.

Engagement, participation and deliberation all have their place, and work differently in different settings. There might be some situations where using participation might be more appropriate, and others where deliberation can really add value. The different approaches can be used to complement one another, for instance, a public survey (participation) might be followed up with a deliberative approach (as we show in our example of participation in the budget later in this blog).

Sowing the seeds – the Committee’s vision

The Committee formally recommended that “the Parliament commit itself to further embedding deliberative democracy within its scrutiny function”. Unlike the Citizens’ Panel, the Committee did not think that this should be done through legislation or creating a permanent structure. Rather, it said that a flexible approach applying a set of guiding principles across a host of deliberative methods should be the aspiration. These principles are:

  • That deliberative democracy should complement the existing model of representative democracy and be used to support the scrutiny process.
  • That the way in which deliberative methods are used, from recruitment through to reporting and feedback, should be transparent and subject to a governance and accountability framework.
  • That the deliberative methods used should be proportionate and relevant to the topic, and the scrutiny context.
  • That participants in deliberative democracy should be supported, empowered and given feedback on how their recommendations are used.

To begin the journey towards this, the Committee set out a timeline of activity, and work on this is already taking off at speed.

A starter for ten – what is already happening

The Parliament finds itself in a relatively unique position of seeking to embed deliberative practice from a scrutiny perspective, and already being some way along this journey.

The organisation already has a team dedicated to participation and engagement, and several citizens’ panels under its belt. There is a wealth of experience to build upon, both in-house and through external networks, so the focus will be on capturing this and understanding how best to apply different methods in future.

Two SPICe research fellowships are already looking at this. One is exploring methods to trace the journey and impact of evidence, and findings are expected to be shared this year. The second, reporting early in 2024, is gathering existing knowledge and experience to build case studies and a proposed practice framework, which SPICe understands would be the first of its kind in a Parliamentary setting. We hope to share details on both pieces of work in future blogs.

As Edward Mountain MSP, Convener of the Net Zero Committee confirmed during a debate on the Committee’s report, the first of the two people’s panel pilots commissioned by the Committee will focus on post-legislative scrutiny of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. This, and a subsequent panel on an area of public interest in late 2024/early 2025, will provide an opportunity to test emerging practice principles.

And of course, practice beyond the people’s panel model continues. This helps the Parliament, as an institution, to help build an understanding where to apply participative and deliberative methods to best effect, and to the greatest benefit of both participants and the scrutiny process. The following section gives an example.

Participation in the Budget – a case study

The annual pre-Budget scrutiny process is one in which committees rely heavily on ‘the usual suspects’, with little public involvement. However, as blogs during the last Budget round explored, participation is a core aspect of a Human Rights Budgeting approach, and intrinsically linked to strengthening accountability during scrutiny.

Human Rights Budgeting is something which the Scottish Government and stakeholders, including Scottish Parliament committees, aspire to seeing used in Scotland. The Scottish Government made it clear, in its response to the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Budget Advisory Group, that it sees responsibility for participation lying firmly within the Parliament’s scrutiny process.

“In relation to the Budget, a range of views are provided through the pre-budget scrutiny process – carried out by the Scottish Parliament’s Committees. Each Committee usually writes to their relevant portfolio minister(s) at least 6 weeks prior to the publication of the Budget, setting out the Committee’s views for the Budget. Almost all of the Committees then hold evidence sessions to ensure that a variety of views are represented.”

Scottish Government, response to the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Budget Advisory Group, “The Budget Development Process; Current and planned activity; Engagement and participation”

The Scottish Government also confirms that it is more focused on participation at the policy development stage:

“Lived experience is integrated into policy decisions as part of the policy development process. We are not currently considering how to further embed lived experience into the overall Budget process.”

Scottish Government, response to the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Budget Advisory Group, “Annex: Response to Recommendations; Recommendation 10”.

As part of a long-term focus on Human Rights Budgeting, the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee decided to focus its pre-Budget scrutiny this year on participation. As well as running a public survey on people’s understanding of the Budget, it asked a group of volunteers from an existing citizens’ panel to work on helping the Committee to understand how best to use participation in a budget scrutiny context. The Whole Family Equality Project Citizens’ Panel was set up by Capital City Partnership to embed a human rights-based approach to service design and delivery by involving people with lived experience.

A group of 12 participants from this existing panel met over three sessions to learn about the Scottish Budget, explore barriers to participation and meeting human rights obligations with the Committee, and use their learning to generate and prioritise a set of questions for the Scottish Government. The panel gave evidence to the Committee, which then went on to ask the panel’s questions directly during pre-Budget evidence from the Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees.

This process helped the Committee to understand how citizens understand and engage with the Budget process, and gave the people involved a direct and meaningful way to take part in scrutiny. It was also a Scottish Parliament first – whilst committees have crowdsourced questions using online platforms before, none have used a deliberative process to build capacity within a group and support them to collectively agree their scrutiny priorities before.

The Committee will write to the Scottish Government with its recommendations soon, and the lessons learned on participation will be carried forward in wider participative and scrutiny work, including budget scrutiny.

What happens next – key considerations

The work of the CPPPC and EHRCJ Committees, and the others that have used deliberative methods before them, has shown that there is both the skill and appetite to increase public participation in scrutiny. The challenge in embedding this will come down to four things – political buy-in, public trust, resources, and embracing opportunities.

Political buy-in

As Jackson Carlaw, Convener of the CPPPC Committee put it recently:

“I think that the MSPs on the Committee who worked through the process and the inquiry started as fairly healthy sceptics but have actually become quite convinced about the role in which public participation and deliberative democracy can play in our future… my Parliamentary colleagues are probably still somewhere where we were before we began the inquiry.

“Somebody senior in Ireland, I won’t name who, said to me “Jackson, this is just a method so that gutless politicians who can’t take decisions are able to hide behind a panel who take the decision for them”. And is there a truth to that? Maybe, but is that a bad thing? On an issue like abortion or potentially an issue like assisted dying here in Scotland where it’s very difficult for politicians necessarily to understand the mood of the public is it not better to have the public involved at the ground level to bring up an issue to a parliament which allows them to make progressive progress?”.

Jackson Carlaw MSP, Convener of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, Public participation – Institutionalising deliberative democracy, Scottish Parliament Podcast, 9 October 2023

The debate in the Chamber on the Committee’s report on 26 October showed that the panel process and recommendations have been well received, with strong cross-party support and willingness across parties, and the Scottish Government, to work together in meeting the Committee’s aspirations. Members of the Parliament agreed unanimously to endorse the Committee’s report and recommendations.

Public trust and continued engagement

The investigation work around the CPPPC inquiry showed just how important it is that participative and deliberative work lead to tangible, visible outcomes. The work done by EHRCJ on pre-budget scrutiny shows the impact on communities of deliberative work done well.  Keeping up the relationships and momentum from this, and other deliberative work, will be a test of the longer-term success of considered and meaningful participation work.


The Scottish Government has warned already that the upcoming Budget will be “a budget of difficult decisions”. The Scottish Parliament is delivering all activities, including the two upcoming People’s Panels, within current resources. Participative and deliberative work is unarguably resource-intensive and time-consuming compared to traditional calls for views and involves a greater ask of the public and the third sector.

In this context, it will become even more important to demonstrate the clear benefits and impact of using these approaches to justify the resource and maintain both political buy-in and trust. It will also be important to consider how to work smarter not harder.  As well as referring to the CPPPC committee’s principles about proportionate and relevant practice, committees may start to explore collaborative approaches, both with external partners and with one another.

Embracing opportunities – collaboration and creativity

SPICe has already highlighted, in last year’s Budget scrutiny, where committees have experienced overlaps in evidence. This will be repeated again in the coming weeks as Committees make their recommendations for the 2024-25 Scottish Budget.

In the Chamber debate on Embedding Public Participation, reflecting on the work of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee work, Convener Kaukab Stewart said:

“We have portfolios and everyone has their responsibilities, but the average person out there does not care whose responsibility something is. People are holistic human beings and many portfolio areas have an impact on their life. They should be able to question things from where they are, so we perhaps need to think about more cross-portfolio working and doing scrutiny together across committees to get a true handle on things.”

Kaukab Stewart MSP, Convener of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, Meeting of the Scottish Parliament, 26 October 2023

Cross-cutting scrutiny like the Budget, National Performance Framework, equalities, and climate change are all areas where there may be opportunities to approach scrutiny from a citizen’s perspective, and to avoid duplicated effort, both on behalf of the Parliament and its resources, but also of those at the heart of participation, the public.

We will continue to explore these overlaps, and to share updates on the Parliament’s deliberative journey as it progresses.

Ailsa Burn-Murdoch, Senior Researcher, SPICe