Engaging sceptics : parliamentary communications in a post-truth era

Anikka Weerasinghe, WFD Research Associate and former Head of Media Relations, UK House of Commons

With a minority government in power and Brexit looming on the horizon, for the next two years, all eyes will be on Westminster. Renewed public interest in parliament will accentuate its responsibility to communicate with, and engage citizens in, its work.

As part of our broader open parliaments and democratic space agenda, WFD has partnered with the House of Commons for a research project to explore what effective parliamentary communications looks like. Over the next six months we will be working together to add to the body of work on the impact of parliamentary communications to provide insight and observations for policymakers inside and outside the UK.

Increased interest presents a positive opportunity for parliamentary engagement. The rise in voter turnout and use of social media in the general election last month hints at increased appetite from the public to know what parliament is doing, but still the perception remains that more must be done to address the relatively low levels of political engagement and trust.

Was there ever a golden age of politics?

In part, as a result of the 2009 Expenses Scandal, the UK Parliament has put considerable effort into increasing transparency, public engagement, education and communications. Yet many wrongly assume that there was a golden age of politics before the Scandal where an unquestioning public revered their politicians and democratic institutions. In actuality, trust in the UK Parliament has held at roughly the same level for the past decade, with the Expenses Scandal acting as only a blip in the public’s attitudes towards their representatives.

“Faced with increased public scepticism, apathy and rapid technological change, parliaments around the world are increasingly interested in engaging citizens in the democratic process and are asking searching questions about what really works”

Studies from the UK and abroad reveal that citizens’ feelings about their democracy and the individual actors and institutions that make up their constituent parts are varied, as are their causes and effects. For parliaments in particular the literature is even less revealing. There are only a handful of studies that examine citizens’ trust and satisfaction with parliaments, but even these cannot tell us the full picture. While policymakers often make assumptions about what a healthy democracy looks like, if the public has revealed anything to us over the past 18 months, it is we cannot readily assume to know what they want. We simply do not have sufficient evidence to solve the major ills of democratic decline, and this makes the role of communications professionals who are tasked with the job of fixing this reputational gap, incredibly challenging.

Countering political malaise

Unfortunately, the challenges of low political engagement are not unique to the UK. Faced with increased public scepticism, apathy and rapid technological change, parliaments around the world are increasingly interested in engaging citizens in the democratic process and are asking searching questions about what really works. As discussed at the recent Global Legislative Openness Conference in Kyiv, parliaments are traditionally slow-moving institutions and uptake of new methods of communications to increase trust with the public has been slow to pay dividends.

In part, this may be because many assume that the traditional communications approaches that apply to corporations, governments or non-profit organisations will also work for parliaments. While there are valuable lessons to learn from other professional communicators, parliaments are complex stakeholder environments with competing, politically nuanced communications agendas. Furthermore, the nature of legislatures means that there are a limited number of similar institutions from which colleagues can share good practice or learn from one another.

“This means changing how parliaments communicate, moving away from the passive sharing of information to a more active approach that puts citizens at the heart of their work”

Parliaments, however, cannot simply wait until the prevailing winds tilt in their favour. Instead, they must find new ways of building trust. This means changing how parliaments communicate, moving away from the passive sharing of information to a more active approach that puts citizens at the heart of their work, a trend that is clearly growing and where the UK Parliament is a global leader. Crucially, it also requires further research to better understand the conditions under which citizens trust or do not trust their parliaments and what factors influence this behaviour, positively or negatively.

The challenges facing our political institutions are perhaps the greatest in a generation, and the public needs to trust and engage with their democracy more now than ever before. Public sector communicators generally, and parliamentary communicators in particular, need as much support as possible to tackle the problem of low political engagement. The first step in addressing this growing challenge is to widen the evidence-base and enhance discussions with practitioners in this field in order to provide the best outcomes for the public to participate in their democracy.

 

(Photo: Students from England and Wales take part in a learning event about democracy in the UK House of Lords © Parliamentary Copyright (Open Parliament Licence v3.0) Image: Mark Dimmock)

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