Building a Democracy: Psychological Considerations for Design of Political Spaces

Ashley Weinberg

Chartered Psychologist and editor of The Psychology of Politicians (Cambridge University Press).

As part of the series of blogs on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster and Designing for Democracy, this article highlights the importance of psychological considerations in informing the design and restoration of the physical spaces in which our political processes take place – an extended version of this article by Ashley Weinberg appears in The Psychologist, June 2017.

Democracy needs people. Democracy also needs space. We elect politicians to do the job on our behalf, yet there has been a growing sense of detachment from them. The democracy we have can feel a lot like democracy at a distance, which detracts from the perceptions of control we need to make us feel part of things. So what kind of space does democracy need to help us feel that it belongs to us, its rightful owners? This is where parliamentary buildings can play their part. They embody our democratic process – where political action happens. In a world where everyone is psychologically unique, the places where government is enacted can come to symbolise a common bond.

So how fit for purpose is Westminster in this regard? The importance of a multidisciplinary approach to this issue is relevant not only to the functioning of our democratic institutions but also workplaces more generally. For example, there is a measureable impact of buildings on human performance and well-being.

Fixing Westminster’s buildings for a sustainable and cost-effective future means we need to consider psychological factors.  In his ground-breaking work, psychologist Chris Clegg showed how we cannot afford to ignore the lessons of a socio-technical systems approach. 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’ and acknowledging that ‘design is an extended social process’ (p.465). In other words, design should be a much more democratic process.

There are clear considerations for structure and function of parliamentary spaces:

  • Formal: debating chambers where argument and persuasion can thrive; offices providing private space for planning, communication and management of work. Security and health units to protect the democratic system including the health and safety of staff and visitors.
  • Informal: lobby areas, alcoves, corridors, cafes and restaurants allowing people to meet, discuss and persuade.
  • Virtual: an online platform that could speed up some voting processes

Communication involving politicians, parliamentary staff and the electorate is surely at the heart of our democratic system. Social media can be used for both purposes, but face-to-face interactions remain potently effective for the purposes of, negotiation, deal-making and deal–breaking.  In a political workplace, it makes sense to design spaces for these interactions. In this way, the lobby areas close to the debating chambers support the intimacy of individual conversations, but also space for groups to meet. Linking corridors make it possible to bump into others so they can have ‘that’ conversation.  This apparent unstructured and ‘accidental’ nature of meeting colleagues is of course political by design. Alliances are built on such opportunities.

Offices provide a private space which occupants can control: who enters and when this happens. Deals are also hard to make in public spaces where it may be important to keep confidential the identity of allies. By contrast cafes and restaurants serve a range of political functions, ensuring that people can be seen with others and accordingly such relationships radiate a sphere of influence.

However 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.

The Parliament Building in Rhuddlan, North Wales. Image courtesy of Llywelyn2000 [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In its infancy, parliament was mobile and designed for speedy consideration of pressing issues. When Simon de Montfort convened parliaments in the 13th century, London alone did not provide this kind of immediacy. For example the parliament building in Rhuddlan in North Wales sits outside the castle and close to the main thoroughfare along which merchants, families and the military  made their way to and from the influential River Clwyd and to the open sea. To the sounds of everyday life, the less than democratic barons made decisions affecting the population, yet 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 – so shouldn’t a modern parliament travel to the people?

Accordingly constituency surgeries and thousands of daily visits to Westminster by citizens – young and old – mean that parliamentary democracy is not simply about adults marking a ballot paper every five years. Casework is a key aspect of the MPs’ work, yet it often goes unseen and can make a huge difference to constituents. The murder of MP Jo Cox at her constituency office and the Westminster Bridge attack have shown that physical security is a key consideration. We must hope it does not detract from an open and democratically elected parliament.

Mending an apparent disconnection between the electorate and the politicians who serve them is paramount. At the root of this is nurturing and galvanising engagement by ensuring we all have some sense of control over our democratic proceedings, which means government which is accessible, accountable and reflects our concerns – even if we disagree with the outcomes.  So this should be with the renovation of the Westminster Parliament. Involvement of the electorate in the (re)design makes psychological sense, and it is also essential to engage the users of the building, who include elected representatives and parliamentary staff. Not only would this foster effective working environments, but help in the rebuilding process of a strong and long-lasting relationship between those who serve as representatives and we, the people, who are legally entitled to elect them.


A longer version of this article appears in the June 2017 edition of The Pyschologist.

This blog first appeared on the Crick Centre Blog, and can be found here:

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