Building democracy

Ashley Weinberg considers how psychology can inform the design and restoration of the physical spaces in which our political processes take place.

The Palace of Westminster, is crumbling. Psychologists can play a part in rebuilding it, and other similar spaces, as physical embodiments of democratic ideals.

Democracy needs people. Democracy also needs space. It can seem that everywhere we turn we bump into images and sounds of characters playing out their political lives on a stage, yet that stage belongs to all of us. We elect politicians to do the job on our behalf, yet there has been a growing sense of detachment from them. Our understanding of the issues that matter is filtered through broadcast, print and online media which most of us do not own. The democracy we have begins to feel a lot like democracy at a distance. What kind of space does democracy need to help us feel it’s close, that it belongs to us, its rightful owners?

This is where buildings can play their part. Whenever there are political events, debates, votes, Prime Minister’s or First Minister’s Questions, we are encouraged to think of the Houses of Parliament, Holyrood, the Senedd, Stormont or the Tynwald. These are the buildings where our elected representatives meet to serve us. Yet democracy is also about representation at a local level, and this is where constituency meeting places, including city, town and parish halls, are important too.  

Each of these locations is an embodiment of our democratic process. This is where political action happens and where those who aspire to bring about change will head as elected representatives, constituents, advisers and lobbyists. In a world where everyone is psychologically unique, the places where national and local government is enacted can come to symbolise a common bond. Ideally this is felt by all and it promotes a system (in Abraham Lincoln’s words) ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. An attack on such democratic institutions represents a personal attack against citizens: on 22 March in Westminster, literally and tragically.  

Given the symbolic and practical importance of these democratic spaces, how fit for purpose are they in physical terms? Could they be better suited to all our needs? You may have heard that the institution to which the whole of UK elects its Members of Parliament is in crisis – it is literally falling apart. Roofs leak, stone crumbles, antiquated heating fails, and information technology means cables are in danger from running water. No wonder both the House of Commons and the Lords are considering relocation (see Coinciding with a time of ongoing political uncertainty, the physical structures on which we have come to rely are set to change. Are we being asked to move into a ‘house’ without seeing it first? Perhaps psychology can play its role in designing for democracy?

Political spaces
The Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield has been spearheading debate and research into the processes surrounding the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, and invites participation from a range of disciplines, including psychology. [For those interested in writing a piece or getting involved in the project more widely, email [email protected]]. The importance of a multidisciplinary approach, not only to the functioning of our democratic institutions but also workplaces more generally, was shown in recent research led by one of my Salford colleagues, Peter Barrett, on classroom design. This demonstrated the measurable impact of buildings on human performance and wellbeing.

So is it realistic to think that places can embody our individual hopes and aspirations, and act as reassuring presences in the face of our fears and anxieties? Can a building symbolise the heart of a democracy? For a start, to be fit for purpose there are clear considerations for structure and function. In (re)building a modern democratic institution we must consider several types of space:

  • Formal: The place will need debating chambers, where views can be shared, and argument or persuasion thrive, so that the views of MPs and the electorate are represented. Offices should provide private space for MPs and parliamentary staff, allowing the planning, communication and management of individual workloads. Security and health units should protect the democratic system by maintaining the health and safety of staff and visitors.
  • Informal: Lobby areas, alcoves, corridors, cafes and restaurants allow people to meet, hold discussions, build alliances and persuade colleagues.
  • Virtual: An online voting platform and public website should allow legislative decisions, keep the electorate informed about citizenship and parliamentary activities, and foster public engagement.

Within each space, communication of ideas is a priority for the effective functioning of a democracy. Communication between politicians, and between MPs and their electors, is surely at the heart of our system. Naturally, social media can be used for both purposes, but face-to-face interactions remain effective for the purposes of persuasion, negotiating, deal-making and deal–breaking (as emphasised in Owen Hargie’s 2006 Handbook of Communication Skills).

In a political workplace, it makes sense to design spaces for these interactions. The lobby areas close to the entrances to debating chambers, including the places designated for voting, facilitate a vital function. For example, large circular physical areas, which at once support the intimacy of individual conversations in alcoves, can also create wider space for groups to meet and bring into discussion those who are passing. The linking corridors also make it possible to ‘bump into’ others a politician needs on their side so they can have ‘that’ conversation. For many workers, this is not dissimilar to the ‘watercooler’ chats: chances to get to know colleagues and have informal conversations about a range of matters relatively free of the usual office formalities and group constraints. This apparent unstructured and ‘accidental’ nature of meeting colleagues is of course political by design. Alliances are built on such opportunities. The deliberate design of spaces that permit this is important and needs to feature in any workplace renovation.

As for the individual, each of us needs a private space that we can control: who enters, when this happens, etc. Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear have highlighted that this is a feature neglected by the modern impetus for large open-plan offices. Deals are hard to make in public spaces where it may be important to keep confidential the identity of one’s allies and even foes. Glass walls let in light, but do you always want to illuminate what you may be planning?

In fact, the Houses of Parliament are perhaps unique in their history of exemption from UK health and safety regulations, as well as features workplaces should consider as standard: psychologically and physically safe and adequate working conditions, induction procedures, etc. One MP recalled sharing a corridor with 14 other MPs, and another was told, ‘Here’s a desk and a phone, now it’s up to you’. Most MPs work very long hours (70-hour weeks are not uncommon), have surprisingly low levels of control over political events and often considerable tensions between work and home lives. In the 2012 book The Psychology of Politicians – featuring contributions from European (including UK) psychologists – I explored how negative aspects of working can lead to deteriorations in politicians’ mental health, as they do for other occupational groups. Four years later in a symposium at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference, we showed how these factors remain key issues, although nearby office accommodation for political staff has helped tackle such overcrowding and psychological support via counselling services for MPs is now available.

The Palace of Westminster is also replete with other designed but less formal meeting places, such as cafes, restaurants and bars. The terrace and tea rooms are well known and serve a range of political functions. They extend the traditional forms of discussion into a social setting, ensuring that people can be seen to be talking with others. The choice of who to sit with and who to meet there becomes significant. Such relationships are public matters and not only in the political workplace, as key messages are conveyed about one’s sphere of influence and closeness to colleagues and those in powerful roles (a point Richard Kwiatkowski considered in The Psychology of Politicians).

Fixing Westminster’s buildings for a sustainable and cost-effective future carries with it the need to consider psychological factors in avoiding the pitfalls of the (re)design process (Clegg, 2000; Swan & Brown, 2013). In building a democracy in this way, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons of a socio-technical systems approach. As Chris Clegg configured, this means recognising psychological processes in the design stage – not simply trying to make sense of the finished product – by ‘identifying what makes for well-designed jobs’ (p.464) and acknowledging that ‘design is an extended social process’ (p.465). Design should be a much more democratic process.

Public spaces
The enactment of democratic process within a palace is a potential paradox. Historically such places carry connotations of power, vested in the hands of the few rather than the many. MPs newly elected to the House of Commons talk of feelings of awe and sometimes intimidation of working in such physically grand surroundings. These are not easy emotions for oiling the wheels of democratic involvement, but do serve to convey the power of the institution.

The Palace of Westminster is a World Heritage Site, and renovations must abide by rules for conservation. But somehow we need to ensure the public can feel it is their Palace. It may be helpful for members of the electorate to see their MPs debate in a way that limited access to the public gallery does not permit. A glass wall (security remaining a consideration) would increase a sense of openness and connectivity that restricted space in the gallery overlooking the debating chamber currently prevents. The renovation of the House may need to take into account ways of maximising public attendance at committee hearings, where the giving of evidence is often televised. This is political in two ways: firstly in MPs being able to hold public figures to account, and secondly, showing the electorate that their concerns are being followed up by their representatives.

From London to virtual spaces
The temporary relocation of Parliament is also under consideration. Should this be in London, or elsewhere? In its infancy the UK Parliament was mobile, not static, and fitted the need for speedy consideration of pressing issues where it mattered most. When Simon de Montfort convened parliaments in the 13th century, both Westminster and Rhuddlan in North Wales provided this kind of immediacy. The latter was located outside the castle walls and close to the people, adjoining the main thoroughfare along which merchants, families and the military would have made their way to and from the influential River Clwyd and to the open sea. To the sounds of everyday life outside, the less than democratic barons made decisions that affected the population, yet the immediacy of the connection between the governors and the governed is clear. In a democracy the people and their representatives should continue to feel this strong connection.

The permanent siting of Parliament at Westminster showed the importance of a range of practical factors. Proximity to the Thames was once vital for travel (and again proved an important feature when used by campaigning flotillas during the Brexit referendum campaign). However, civil contact between citizens and their representatives is vital to ensure effective two-way communication, and these days MPs’ constituency surgeries and thousands of daily visits to Westminster by politicians and private citizens – young and old – mean that parliamentary democracy is not simply about adults marking a ballot paper every five years. This kind of casework is a key aspect of the MPs’ work, yet it often goes unseen and can make a huge difference to the lives of constituents. The murder of MP Jo Cox at her constituency office only galvanised the determination of MPs to maintain this vital aspect of their elected office. Physical security is likely to be a paramount consideration in renovation, but we must hope it does not detract from the very purpose of an open and democratically elected parliament.

So what of online space, the relatively new territory for political debate and apparent ‘free’ speech? Perceptions of a ‘guaranteed’ internet audience and relative lack of regulation attracts many, but has the virtual world overtaken formal ‘physical’ spaces in our democracy? On the positive side, Parliament engages with social media to inform the electorate about its functions and ongoing developments, while debates can be triggered by obtaining sufficient signatures. The introduction of online voting in Parliament would also have the potential to save considerable time, although this could reduce opportunities for MPs to persuade colleagues face-to-face. On the negative side is increasing disquiet about the use and definition of the ‘truth’ – in The Guardian last year, Katharine Viner wrote that ‘In the digital age, it is easier than ever to publish false information, which is quickly shared and taken to be true’. Virtual space represents an added dimension to the physical spaces where politics ‘happen’, but the information that supports public political debate needs to be useful and responsibly sourced (e.g. Curran et al., 2012). The use of online communication by some to threaten their representatives is an obvious area for concern.

It may be hard for Westminster to begin afresh, and so structural change is likely to have its limits. Yet bold moves are required in order to preserve its function from harm, as well as to elevate in the eyes of an often sceptical public the status of the democratic processes that take place there (Flinders, 2012). Mending an apparent disconnect between the electorate and the politicians who serve them is paramount. In nurturing and galvanising engagement in democratic proceedings, there appears to be no substitute for ensuring the people have government that is acessible and accountable and that reflects public concerns.

Public expectations of democracy also demand a necessary level of transparency and acceptability, and so this should be with the renovation of the Westminster Parliament. Involvement of the electorate in the (re)design makes eminent sense, as does meaningful input by the users of the building, who include elected representatives and parliamentary staff. This would not only foster the connectivity desirable from a socio-technical systems perspective, but also help in the rebuilding process of a strong and long-lasting relationship between those who serve as representatives and us, the people, who are legally entitled to elect them.

Box: Chambers and connections
Should we have two sides of the House facing each other, thus encouraging an adversarial approach to debating and deciding our political matters? In the Crick Centre’s Designing for Democracy, the Speaker of the House of Commons suggests this is something that should continue ( However, in other UK political institutions, such as Holyrood, The Senedd and Stormont, the seating areas are semicircular or horseshoe in their configuration. Are these structures more suited to collaborative working, or do they impede the possibilities for working compromise?

Whatever the reality, the oppositional nature of parliamentary behaviour seems to disenchant members of the public and some MPs, and the adversarial layout of the debating chamber is sometimes blamed for this. It is hard to know whether the debating chambers in the devolved political institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have by their design – or their location – ensured a greater sense of collaboration and fostered an improved sense of connection between electors and government. Writing in the New York Times last year, Allison Arieff considered whether a modern design could more closely mirror how we conduct our own daily business, rather than the designs reminiscent of medieval or neo-Classical periods (see Granting more self-governing powers to UK cities will elevate the importance of such questions.

About the author

‘I was brought up near Rhuddlan in North Wales where one of the earliest parliaments was located – as a toddler, my playgroup was actually round the corner from Parliament Street and the castle. Perhaps it was no surprise I was fascinated by politics and people, so visiting Westminster as a school student and now reminds me of our shared sense of history, as well as our struggle for democratic rights throughout the UK. It is sad to see the ravages of time on the buildings, but this natural process is also a reminder of our need to nurture, maintain and develop democracy too.'

‘Please support the proposal for a BPS Political Psychology Section:’

- Ashley Weinberg is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Salford   
[email protected]

Key sources

Clegg, C.W. (2000). Sociotechnical principles for system design. Applied Ergonomics, 31(5), 463–477.
Crick Centre (2016). Designing for Democracy.
Curran, J., Coen, S., Aalberg, T. & Iyengar, S. (2012). News content, media use, and current affairs knowledge. In J. Curran & T. Aalberg (Eds.) How media inform democracy: A comparative approach (pp.81–97). London: Routledge.
Flinders, M. (2012). Defending politics: Why democracy matters in the 21st century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Swan, W. & Brown, P. (2013). Retrofitting the built environment. Chichester: Wiley.
Weinberg, A. (Ed.) (2012). The psychology of politicians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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