PSA Parliaments member, and second-year PhD student, Alex Prior, discusses his PSA placement with the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
Between January and May 2017 I was based at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) in the House of Commons, undertaking a four-month placement organised by the PSA. I applied for this placement in the first year of my PhD, during which I was planning my own PhD fieldwork. Considering the subject matter of my PhD – Parliament and public engagement – the placement seemed to be an ideal opportunity to learn more about the institution while carrying out my research. Moreover, given the fact that my fieldwork was going to entail spending a lot of time in London, the placement was invaluable from a practical point of view.
Through working as a staff member in a select committee, the placement enabled me to gain a deeper working knowledge of Parliament, as well as enriching my own research material. My PhD conceptualises political engagement as a personal dynamic underpinned by meaningful interactions. With this in mind, I was keen to understand the dynamics within committees themselves: the role of the Chair, the committee members, the clerks, committee staff, and specialist advisors.
Among select committees, PACAC has a particularly wide-ranging remit; its previous work has encompassed public appointments, the EU referendum, the work of the civil service, and inter-institutional relations within the UK. The close-knit nature of the committee meant that, even if I was not working directly on a particular inquiry, I still learned a great deal about it from my colleagues. Thanks to PACAC’s broad portfolio, I became familiar with a great number of parliamentary responsibilities within a short space of time.
My work at PACAC concentrated around two inquiries: Brexit and Devolution, and reforming the House of Lords. Both of the inquiries were highly pertinent to my research focus, given their relevance to topics such as representation, tradition and ritual, political communication and symbolic institutions. In addition, both inquiries were a considerable source of public and media attention. The consequent level of public discussion, and the way in which this reflected perceptions of Parliament, was fascinating to me.
My responsibilities for these two inquiries were extremely varied and represented each constituent step of the inquiry process. This included processing written evidence, liaising with witnesses, organising seminars and compiling briefing materials. For the House of Lords inquiry, I helped to put together a short video summary that was then circulated via social media. In the case of the Brexit inquiry, I produced the terms of reference for evidence submissions. Throughout this time I worked closely with our specialist advisors, which proved to be a highly instructive experience.
It would seem dishonest to exclude the Westminster attack on 22 March from a reflective discussion about my experience at Parliament, though it is difficult to know precisely what to say. From the first moments, the continuous supply of information and support between colleagues and departments was extremely encouraging from a professional – and very personal – standpoint. The committee system displayed an extraordinary capacity to function under immensely difficult circumstances. The way in which the community of Parliament immediately pulled together is an important memory.
Building on this point, being based within Parliament profoundly shaped my experience of many political events. Following the announcement of the general election, for example, it was fascinating to take part in the administration of parliamentary dissolution; particularly the drawing-up of legacy material, which referenced the work that I had been personally involved in. It proved to be an extremely exciting time to be working for the House of Commons, and further enriched the professional experience that I can now reflect on.
From the first day at PACAC I was able to engage fully with committee work, allowing me to make the most of my four months. I was made to feel welcomed as a colleague rather than an intern, which enabled me to take on the responsibilities of a committee specialist, and to make a direct contribution to the work of the committee. This was especially encouraging considering the fact that the staff of a select committee constitutes a fairly small team. The level of knowledge and expertise within each select committee, and the library service with whom they work closely, is a valuable resource for any academic. From consulting library briefing papers to holding informal discussions, my knowledge of several topics benefited hugely.
I encountered a great deal of positivity towards my research while working for the committee, so much so that I was able to include parliamentary staff as participants. This has provided an invaluable ‘institutional’ angle to my research on political engagement, which greatly benefits the richness of my data. It would have been difficult to organise these sessions had I not been based within Parliament, so I am very grateful to have had the opportunity.
I thoroughly enjoyed being able to discuss political engagement with parliamentary staff. I was interested in how this term was defined and conceptualised by staff, on both a personal level and as part of their professional remit. These conversations ultimately formed part of my PhD fieldwork. I also engaged with cross-committee research on witness diversity, which relates closely to political engagement and involved working alongside the Outreach service.
The placement greatly benefited three factors: my knowledge of the inquiries’ subject matter, my understanding of the wider parliamentary process, and the quality and breadth of my PhD research. It was a profoundly enjoyable experience and I would encourage any interested PhD students to apply for this year’s PSA/House of Commons Committee Office Placement Programme or similar opportunities in future.
Alex Prior is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, where his research focuses on political engagement and the role of Parliament. His work investigates the usefulness of narrative and storytelling in conceptualising politics and encouraging participation. You can follow him on Twitter: @VoterEngagement
The PSA/House of Commons Committee Office Placement Programme provides a fantastic opportunity for PSA members who are currently studying for a PhD to gain some real-world experience of working in Westminster. The successful applicant(s) will be placed either within a team of staff supporting a specific Select Committee or in the Scrutiny Unit. This will be a paid full-time four-month placement paying £1,000 per month. The closing date for applications is 21st September 2018. More information about the scheme.
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