THE Scottish Parliament restarts after its summer recess this week, in what is likely to be a busy parliamentary session for MSPs. We can expect to see the high-profile debates on health, education and the economy, and the Scottish Government will make an announcement about the new bills it plans to introduce.

Many of the bills the Scottish Government announced last year – like the legislation to establish a social security system for Scotland, to tackle domestic violence, and to address information-sharing by the “named person” in relation to children and young people – will also be scrutinised by MSPs.

When the Scottish Parliament was founded it was intended to be “accessible and involve the people of Scotland in its decisions as much as possible”, with power-sharing between people and parliament built in. Many of the parliament’s systems and structures – like the public petitions committee – are designed to make this involvement as easy as possible. Holyrood’s MSPs are infinitely more accessible than Westminster’s MPs.

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However, levels of public engagement with the parliament are not as high as they could be. Many community groups and local voluntary-sector organisations, who should have a powerful voice, are never heard in the parliament. Sometimes this is because the right structures aren’t in place. At other times it is because there is a lack of confidence about how to engage.

As charity campaigners we are keen to change this lack of confidence. The Scottish Parliament should be accessible to everyone in Scotland. We have written a book and trained people in community groups and voluntary organisations across Scotland in how to make the most out of the parliament.

So, we would like to encourage National readers to think about how they are going to make the parliament work for them over the next session. Here are our top ways of getting involved in the parliamentary debate.

You have eight MSPs for your constituency and region – use them! It doesn’t matter if you voted for them or not, they are still there to represent you. You may not agree with your Tory list MSP on independence, but you can still try to get them onside on an issue like domestic violence.

Don’t expect MSPs to have the answers. Don’t be shy – you know best about your local community and what matters to you. Tell them what you want them to do, and ask them to come to you to find out why.

Keep track of what’s going on. Most of the media will tell you about what’s going on in the parliament after it has happened. If you want to change what’s going to happen, go onto the Scottish Parliament website have a look at the parliament’s business bulletin (the timetable of what’s coming up). Ask your local MSPs if they are going to be speaking in a debate and tell them what you would like them to say.

If you want to get really engaged, chose a topic that’s up for debate to learn more about. You can easily find out what’s happening on that issue on the parliament website, and you will usually find briefings from the parliament’s information centre and consultation responses from all kinds of groups. You can sit in on the committee debates if you are in Edinburgh, or watch on the parliament website. Use this information to feed back to your MSPs, comment and challenge.

If you are part of a local group and want to see something change, start by working out exactly what you want that change to be. When the parliament debates a new social security system for Scotland, lots of people will contact their MSPs saying they want a better and fairer system. You can have more impact if you can tell your politicians about why a particular bit of the legislation needs to change, and what you would like to see instead.

Don’t be scared of legislation! Since the committees that scrutinise parliamentary bills don’t have a majority of any party’s MSPs, they can be more open to influence than debates involving the whole parliament. Charities and voluntary organisations often have changes they want to see to legislation – get involved, support the amendment, and challenge the members of the committee to do likewise.

By following the steps above you can help to shape and improve policy development and legislation in the new parliamentary session, and help make the parliament what it was supposed to be – a parliament for the people.

Mark Ballard and Robert McGeachy are award-winning public affairs professionals, and the joint authors of The Public Affairs Guide to Scotland: Influencing Policy and Legislation published by the Welsh Academic Press