Citizen’s inquiry

In many parliamentary democracies there is a procedure known as parliamentary inquiry. On the English website of the Dutch parliament this described as:

The parliamentary committee of inquiry is a particular type of temporary committee of the House. The parliamentary inquiry is the most powerful instrument the Dutch parliament has at its disposal to carry out its duty to scrutinize the work of the Government.

As such parliamentary inquiries are an important part of a system of checks of balances. Nevertheless there are a few issues with this system.

First of all, in order to organize a parliamentary inquiry it needs the support of a majority of MPs. This allows the government, which usually enjoys majority support in the house, to block or procrastinate inquiries on “unwanted” or “inconvenient” subjects.

Of course, we could reduce the threshold for organizing a parliamentary inquire to, say, a third or a fifth of all MPs. Though this would definitely strengthen the role of the opposition, we will still have to deal with a second issue.

In a multi-party system coalition governments are a rule rather than an exception. Hence opposition and government parties are temporary distinctions and parties that compete with each other at one time, might cooperate in the future.

This creates an incentive for both government and opposition parties from attacking each other too much. This is even worse in case of minority governments that rely upon the support of opposition parties – often on different parties for different policies.

As a result of political bargaining in such situations, an opposition party might be persuaded to forgo its demands for a parliamentary inquiry in exchange for certain treats – varying for certain policy concessions or the appointment of senior party members at desirable offices.

Therefore we propose in addition to parliamentary inquiries the introduction of a citizen’s inquiry. This will entail a temporary jury of randomly selected citizens – without direct links to the political establishment – that will possess the same powers of its parliamentary counterpart such as:

  • the ability to compel people to show up for it hearings – failure to do so will be a crime
  • committing perjury during such a hearing will be a crime

The main difference will be that a citizen’s inquiry should be held at request of a substantial portion of the population, for instance ten percent. A threshold is necessary to ensure that only issues that are of great social concern will be subject to this procedure.

A citizen’s jury will increase the ability of the people to scrutinize their government while side-stepping political interests that might seek to prevent a parliamentary inquiry.