By Kevin Davies and Cristina Leston-Bandeira
Over the last decade, public engagement has become a key role for parliaments. This is shown in the reinforcement of a wide range of types of activity, from expanding the scope of visits to parliament, developing educational resources about the institution, to introducing out-facing programmes actively seeking to engage communities with the work of parliament. Whilst this has represented a clear shift in the way parliaments engage with the public, most of this activity has tended to develop in parallel to actual parliamentary business – as an aside activity.
However, this has been changing more recently in a number of legislatures. This is particularly patent in the National Assembly for Wales, which has experimented with a wide range of methods to engage the public with ongoing committee business. In this blog post, we outline some of these innovations, whilst reflecting on what makes for effective public engagement. As parliamentary public engagement has expanded, become more complex and better integrated with parliamentary business, the need to evaluate its effects is also becoming more pressing.
Committee engagement in the National Assembly of Wales
The three key principles of public engagement of the National Assembly for Wales are: to publicise information to inform, to involve people in its work, and to empower people to help shape and set the agenda. This post focuses on how the Assembly involves people in its committee work.
The Assembly’s emphasis on committee engagement is led by two main aims:
- To collect evidence from more diverse audiences with different perspectives
- To build long term engagement, understanding and trust between institution and the people it represents and serves.
One of the Assembly’s key concerns over the last few years has been therefore to broaden the range of people who contribute to committee scrutiny. In order to do this it has focused on an issue-based approach and used a larger range of methods including crowdsourcing platforms such as Loomio and Dialogue, reference groups, events, focus groups, video interviews, web-chats and surveys; whilst integrating Members in these methods wherever possible. Having a range of ways for people to contribute helps create the environment and the opportunity for individuals to translate their motivation into action.
Interest groups regularly respond to committee consultations through traditional calls for evidence and provide extremely valuable contributions in writing and in oral evidence sessions. However, the contributions received through traditional methods don’t tend to include the views of people who work within the relevant sector, or citizens with an interest in, or who would be affected by the decisions made on specific matters. Actively seeking evidence from more diverse audiences ensures the latter are also listened to.
Committees’ engagement projects have shown that the views of those citizens and service users who the Assembly engage in committee scrutiny through less formal methods often confirm the viewpoints of those interest groups who regularly connect with committees. However, when this happens it adds validity to a committee’s case to make recommendations to government. On those occasions when contributors express different sets of issues and ideas to committees, it opens new avenues to explore during the scrutiny process, which can lead to recommendations stemming from contributions of those audiences that committees don’t tend to hear from.
One interesting case study comes from the former Health and Social Care Committee from the 4th Assembly, as part of its inquiry into Alcohol and Substance Misuse. Front line staff and clients who have experienced issues with alcoholism and substance misuse took part in two consultation events led by the Committee and then continued their discussion online using the deliberative platform Loomio. The Committee’s final report included 21 recommendations, with 13 integrating evidence collated through this engagement work and 3 only referencing evidence received through this engagement work. The evidence collated through this engagement work strengthened therefore the evidence base of this inquiry’s recommendations, besides adding new perspectives to it, clear in the 3 recommendations which would not have been made had this evidence not been collected. Does this indicate effective public engagement?
Evaluation of parliamentary public engagement
Anecdotally, we hear that people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be interested in politics, do acquire a greater understanding of the National Assembly’s role and its Members’ work, after having been involved in an engagement activity connected to committee inquiries. Recently the Assembly has started analysing the impact of engagement activities on the participant, to test anecdotal evidence.
In one of these, feedback collected through a survey showed that, as a result of being part of the activity, participants were more likely to feel that people like them have a say in the decisions taken by the National Assembly of Wales. This related to an activity where video evidence was gathered from SMEs from across Wales for an Inquiry into Business Rates in Wales. SMEs were kept informed on the progress of the inquiry and were provided with feedback on the impact of their participation.
It is difficult to establish what effective engagement consists of, but for the sake of this reflection we consider it to be engagement that leads to a change; a change in parliamentary output and/or a change in public attitude. The Welsh National Assembly’s experience of committee engagement leads us to outline the following criteria for effective committee engagement:
- Integration: the Assembly has an integrated team approach to planning and delivering committee work. Each committee integrated team is made up of committee clerks, researchers, lawyers and outreach officers. Each team meets to plan immediate week to week business, as well as longer term plans to engage a more diverse range of people in the scrutiny work.
- Audience: being clear about who exactly the committee wants to engage with, at what stage in the process and what kind of issues it wishes to explore, before selecting specific engagement methods. Being clear also to participants about the context of the activity and what their participation can achieve.
- Picking the method(s): no specific methods should be favoured; instead methods should be chosen on the basis of the context of each issue being considered, the availability of members and what works best for specific audience(s).
- Long term relationships should be built: with individuals, groups, businesses and organisations through an ongoing engagement programme that can feed into committee engagement as part of a broader engagement experience with the institution.
- Involving Members: although officials will lead on the detail of the engagement activity, it is key that Members are involved with all stages of development. It provides legitimacy for the activity and it makes it most likely to be taken on board by Members.
- Planning: time is needed to arrange members’ availability for engagement sessions and for external groups to help recruit participants. Some participants may also need sessions ahead to prepare them for their interaction with the committee so they are prepared, feel confident and have been informed about the wider context before having their say.
- Accessibility: engagement should be fun and easy; engaging on their terms, removing barriers to access and participation (i.e. travel costs, language)
- Feedback: keeping participants informed on what’s going on, making connections between the issues and ideas they raised and the conclusions the committee has made. The committee report may not be enough and a variety of reporting outputs may have to be produced.
- Evaluation: Where possible data should be collated before and after an engagement event to assess participants’ change of attitudes. But even if anecdotal, in particular when evaluating with officials and members, evaluation is always worth doing. It’s important to create a safe space where besides discussing the good, critical reflection also focuses on what could be done differently next time.*
Committee work offers valuable opportunities for public engagement, as it enables issue based engagement and possible effects on parliamentary outputs. We still know little though about what makes for effective engagement. As public engagement becomes more embedded into parliamentary business and a part of public expectations, it is therefore important to invest on consistent evaluation methods. Something that could be more easily shared across legislatures – which all face, after all, the same challenges.
Kevin Davies is Senior Public Engagement Official at the National Assembly for Wales. He tweets: @kevo_davies
Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. She tweets @estrangeirada
* Below we suggest some questions which could support the evaluation of specific committee public engagement activities:
What value did it add?
- Did the committee hear from new people, therefore expanding its audience base? If not, why not?
- Who took part (gender, age, location, ethnicity, political interest, levels of political participation etc)?
- What impact did their participation have on participants’ attitudes (confidence, knowledge, political interest, trust etc)?
- What was the feedback on the practicalities of the activity they took part in?
- Would they take part again?
- Did participants feel that they had adequate opportunities to voice their opinion?
- Did participants raise new issues or confirm issues raised by others?
- Did the engagement increase the committee’s reach and profile on social and traditional media?
- Was there a link between the committee’s actions (i.e. recommendations in the report) and the issues raised through this activity?
- Did the committee take any actions which came directly as a result of the participants’ contribution?
What should be considered next time?
- How was information presented to members? Did they engage with this?
- Which stage in the process did the activity take place?
- Are there any tips as to when and/or with who this method works well, or not?
- What are the resource implications and practical considerations for officials and members?