Please note that this piece was originally published on the PSA Insights Blog, available here.
By Leanne-Marie McCarthy-Cotter
Following from yesterday’s launch of the report ‘Building Public Engagement: Options for Developing Select Committee Outreach’, Dr Leanne-Marie McCarthy-Cotter (The Crick Centre, University of Sheffield), discusses the findings from her, Prof. Matthew Flinders and Prof. Ian Marsh’s research. The research was commissioned, and published, by the Liaison Committee. You can access the report in full here.
The relationship between the governors and the governed is changing. And whilst there have been a range of scholars who have attempted to explain the transition across a range of issues, many have focused attention on the ‘disaffected democrats’ who, for a variety of reasons, feel disconnected from traditional mainstream politics. What is interesting however for those of us studying these issues, is that Parliament itself is not ignorant about either the existence or implications of these changing social pressures, and it is possible to trace a process of parliamentary reform and modernization that has attempted to ‘close the gap’ that is arguably developing between parliament and society.
In particular, it is the select committees that is evolving into the interface between the institution of Parliament and the public. In 2010 a series of core tasks were introduced to select committees to help deliver ‘systematic scrutiny’. The core tasks helped raise levels of scrutiny, opened-up new areas of government to the public, demanded accounts from politicians, and their overall impact has been significant. But there was a problem, as despite the internal success of select committees in terms of scrutinizing the government, select committees have not been as successful in terms of engaging with the public about their work.
Therefore, in 2012 the House of Commons voted to accept a recommendation from the Liaison Committee that all select committees introduce another core task, in that they should ensure that public engagement would be a distinctive and explicit factor of their work. Placing it on an equal footing as scrutiny. In February 2015 we were commissioned by the Liaison Committee to to look at how Select Committees have responded in assisting the House of Commons to improve engagement with the public by making their work more accessible and identifying ways they can improve the quality of their work through strengthening opportunities for participation. The findings formed the basis of a special report that has been published by the Liaison Committee.
What became apparent in our research was that some committees do engage with the public in order to select the topics for inquiries, and most have augmented inquiries by widening outreach. Our survey evidence suggests high levels of confidence amongst those who have actively engaged with select committees, but this is in marked contrast to the findings of the Hansard Society’s latest Audit of Political Engagement 2015, which found that although two-thirds of the public believe that Parliament ‘is essential to our democracy’, just 34 per cent (the lowest figure for five years) agreed that it ‘holds government to account’. Members of the public who have actually had contact with Parliament through engagement with a select committee are therefore far more likely to hold positive views about the institution and its work. This reinforces the need and significance of select committees being able to more successfully engage with the public, the issue that lay at the heart of the Liaison Committee’s recommendation for the new core task.
Our research also demonstrated that levels of public engagement vary significantly across the select committee system. Progress has therefore been patchy and ad hoc, with some committees adopting an imaginative and innovative approach, with others being more restrained. Public engagement tended to be most effective where select committees adopted cross-sessional themes or over-arching agendas as a complement to more traditional inquiries. Using a variety of on-line platforms, acknowledging that engagement demands the capacity to ‘talk to multiple publics in multiple ways’, allowing publicly initiated inquiries, holding informal evidence sessions, working outside of London, and supporting engagement from non-traditional communities. were all successful elements that delivered increased profile and media visibility for committees. Equally important is the manner in which public engagement was used as a positive element across all committee activities – including agenda setting, reviewing government policies, scrutinizing draft bills, holding pre-appointment hearings, and examining the administration of departments. Public engagement should not therefore been seen as an ‘add on’, but rather as an underlying element of all committee activity.
The main recommendations of our report therefore focused attention not simply on institutional reforms, technology, or resources, but rather on the need for a deeper cultural change on the part of MPs and officials, so that public engagement is viewed as a positive opportunity to increase both the standard and the visibility of all the agenda setting and scrutiny activity that are undertaken. Select Committee inquiries represent an opportunity to build relationships and to promote conversations that revolve around increasing both democratic voice and democratic listening, and thus to counter citizen disaffection.
Our research, and report, illustrates that many committees are adopting new methods and procedures for building engagement. But it also provides a picture of an engagement landscape that is inconsistent across the whole committee structure. Public engagement has not yet been fully embedded into the culture of parliament, but there is evidence of significant ‘cracks and wedges’ that can now be levered during the 2015-2020 Parliament. Clearly the focus of the committee and the topic of the inquiry will have some bearing on the approach to engagement adopted (in terms of methods and potential ‘publics’) but a more expansive and ambitious approach across the board is to be encouraged.
The question is then ‘How should this be achieved’? The report outlines a ten-point set of inter-related recommendations but they can all be connected in the sense that the existing social research demonstrates a clear desire on the part of the public to ‘do politics differently’. That is with more agility and flexibility, through non-traditional pathways that embrace a broader range of ways of expressing viewpoints and – most of all – a form of politics that is less removed.
About the author
Leanne-Marie McCarthy-Cotter is a Postdoctoral Research Associate, at The Crick Centre, at the University of Sheffield. She tweets @leannemariec.