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Parliamentary outreach – proving Bismark wrong


When I first started researching parliament, about 20 years ago, the idea of a parliamentary outreach programme would have been laughed at so today’s launch of a new range of Outreach resources for universities is particularly welcome. The Parliament Outreach package of student visits, teaching resources, and research workshops is a far cry from the early 1990s when there wasn’t even anywhere to eat in the Palace if you were a humble visitor. During days interviewing MPs, and faced with having to leave the building, and battle my way back in through security, I often used to lock myself in a WC to eat my packed lunch. Apologies to anyone who wanted the loo badly, or to anyone who wondered what those strange munching noises were, but needs must sometimes. Things have got better since then.

Sceptics about the value of outreach often quote the line, usually attributed to Bismarck, that there are two things that one should never see being made: sausages and law. Anyone who knows anything about the law-making process – in the UK or elsewhere – can see where he was coming from. But the assumption that has underpinned the work on the Parliamentary Outreach team since it was established is a more optimistic one: that if we educate people about how their legislature functions, we will increase their faith in it. No one’s ever promoted outreach work by institutions in order to diminish faith in them.

And the good news is that more people know about parliament, the higher they rate it. In 2012, for example, IPSA found that 57% of those who said they thought they had a good idea of what MPs actually did thought they did a good job; the figure for those who did not have a good idea of what MPs did was just 17%. Even the Hansard Society’s recent report into PMQs – which did not find a nation in love with the institution – found that those who had watched full sessions of PMQs were more positive about them than those who only saw clips on TV.

The same is true of students. The University of Nottingham is one of the 13 Higher Education institutions taking part in the Parliament Outreach Parliamentary Studies programme launched lasts year. We have taught Parliament as a final year undergraduate module for over a decade now, and it has always been one of our most popular modules. But being able to draw on the resources of the Parliamentary Outreach team has added a new, valuable, dimension to the teaching. The students get to hear from those who ‘do’ politics; and they get real world examples in which to locate more theoretical material. For a student studying parliament to be able to question the Leader of the House of Commons, say, is like a theology student being able to question Moses. Even if the material delivered is essentially the same as that conveyed by the academic staff member, it can have important reinforcement value; and more often they provide insights and perspectives not available in the classroom. I recall one student who had often struggled to accept a point made to him about the way the whips’ office functioned; during a field trip to Westminster the Chief Whip made exactly the same point to him – at which point you could see the cogs moving behind his eyes. He’d ‘got’ it at last.

This year Mark Stuart and I surveyed our students both before and after the teaching, to measure both levels of knowledge about, and faith in, parliament. We are happy to admit that we were concerned that by telling them about the institution in a warts and all way we could easily be undermining what faith they might have in the place. (There’s always a bit of a shocked look when you tell them that most of the time on most votes, most MPs don’t know what they’re voting on…). But it turned out that students had higher levels of trust in Parliament, and higher levels of satisfaction with MPs, after taking the course than they did before. The new learning and teaching resources being launched today, which includes a programme of student visits will only improve things further. Bismarck was wrong.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham.

Parliament’s Outreach Service offers a range of resources and services aimed at students and university staff. Universities across the UK can now sign up to a new programme of student visits to Westminster and access a range of teaching & learning resources. Academic researchers will also have the opportunity to attend research workshop organised in partnership with POST, the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology. Find out more at

This piece originally appeared on the PoliticsHome website. We appreciate permission to reproduce.


Published inBritish Politics


  1. barry winetrobe barry winetrobe

    “The distinguishing quality of Parliamentary government is, that in each stage of a public transaction there is a discussion; that the public assist at this discussion..” Walter Bagehot, 1867.

    Parliamentary outreach is fine and necessary, but of greater importance is its other face, ‘inreach’ ie ‘public engagement’. Sadly Westminster is lagging far behing in this, much more difficult to do, objective.

    Just as the expenses scandal and similar negatives have shown, more transparency can bring less public faith and trust, not more – especially if the product itself is flawed. Both outreach and ‘inreach’ should be seen, not as ends in themselves (boxes to be ticked in Westminster’s Strategic Mangement/Business Plans or whatever), but means to a higher end – the enhancement of parliamentary government itself. When Westminster genuinely sees these two-way engagements with the public as a learning and improvement tool, and embraces a truly engagement-friendly culture, it will have not just a brand, but also a product worth outreaching.

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