On design and informal space

We talk a lot about rules and procedures, the more formal and formalistic dimensions of contemporary democratic governance. Arguably, informal spaces such as those studied in a recently published article by Philip Norton, are equally important, if not more so, as they reveal key aspects of what political scientists call “political culture,” which must include an inclination to abide by rules and procedures and respect diversity if democracy is to flourish.

Here are a few excerpts from Dr. Norton’s piece, published in the April 2019 issue of the journal Parliamentary Affairs.

“Legislatures are typically multi-functional and functionally adaptable bodies, fulfilling a range of functions beyond their core defining function of giving assent to measures of public policy in order for them to be binding…

The behaviour… occurs within a particular physical space, what we term formal space. By this, we mean space used for specified meetings, with a presiding officer, an agenda and behaviour governed by rules and procedures. It thus encompasses the chamber and committee sessions. It also includes space used for gatherings of parliamentary party groups, cross-party groups and caucuses. Such groups generally have scheduled meetings, may maintain minutes or some record of proceedings, and have officers, with these officers having some recognition for parliamentary and party purposes… We also include gatherings such as private dining groups and organised factions, given that they generally meet at specified times and are confined to an invited and exclusive group, with officers or a convenor… The activity by definition is collective activity.

None of the characteristics of formal space applies in the context of informal space. By this, we mean space where members gather and converse, but where the gathering is not formally scheduled, has no set agenda, is not minuted, and there is no-one presiding formally over proceedings…

The use of informal space… is important to the legislature for the process of institutionalisation and, to members, for socialisation into the institution, for information exchange, for lobbying, and for mobilising political support. Institutionalisation and the socialisation of members underpin the stability of the legislature. Information exchange and lobbying can impact on ministerial actions and outcomes of public policy. Mobilising political support can determine who holds office. These are hardly insubstantial consequences…

In legislatures in democratic systems, there will, typically, be space designed for members to meet informally with one another. This will include dining, tea and reading rooms, and possibly even sporting facilities…

These spaces have been, and remain, important for informal political discourse. As such, the use of such space facilitates autonomy, differentiating the institution from the wider environment…

The use of space for members meeting informally is an intrinsic part of parliamentary life, important to members for learning the rules and practices of the institution, for sharing information with colleagues, especially party colleagues, for gaining support for one’s causes, and for one’s own political advancement. One cannot understand how Parliament operates with the use of informal space omitted from consideration. Exploiting it effectively can deliver notable rewards. Neglecting it can mean one fails to achieve one’s policy goals and to reach the top—or to stay at the top—of the political ladder…

Increasingly, informal space has expanded into virtual space, the use of social media, not least WhatsApp groups, complementing what goes on in tea rooms and lobbies. Members may converse via social media, utilising it to exchange information or lobby support for a cause or their own advancement. Whips and party managers may use it to keep members informed. The extension of internal interactions into cyberspace has advantage for members—not only convenience in terms of timing, but also privacy, away from any prying eyes, not least of the whips or in some cases backbench colleagues…”




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