Building public engagement: Options for developing select committee outreach - Liaison Contents


Biographical Note

Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and a member of the board of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Ian Marsh is Visiting Professor at University of Technology Sydney Business School. His co-authored study, Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal: Political Change in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (Cambridge, 2012) focuses on parliamentary committees as key potential nodes in democratic renewal.

Leanne-Marie Cotter is a Research Fellow in the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. She received her PhD from Cardiff University in 2015.

The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Professor ADH Crook Public Service Fellowships and the ESRC IAA in the production of this research-based report.

List of Figures and Tables

Table 1.   Building Public Engagement: Basic Issues

Table 2.   Building Public Engagement: Basic Opportunities

Table 3.   Inquiry Categorisations

Table 4.   Inquiry Patterns across Case Study Committees (2010 to 2014)

Table 5.   Oral Witnesses and Formal Written Submissions: Case Study Committees (2010 to 2014)

Table 6.   On-line Engagement

Table 7.   Off-line Engagement

Table 8.   Select Committees and Public Engagement

Table 9.   Building Public Engagement: Achieving Change

Figure 1.   Establishing Respondents First Awareness of Inquiry, percentage

Figure 2.   Activity Undertaken in Preparation

Figure 3.   The Importance of Outcome

Figure 4.   Experience of Submitting Oral Evidence

Figure 5.   Reporting Participation to Members

Figure 6.   Action Taken as Result of Committee Report

Figure 7.   Respondents Views on Committee Findings

Figure 8.   Worthwhile Features of Parliamentary Inquiry

Appendix A.   Off-Line Engagement (full case study audit)

Executive Summary

1. The relationship between the governors and the governed is changing. The impact of the internet and social media, the widened array of stand-alone issues on the public agenda (such as gay marriage, climate change, Europe), the changing nature of public attitudes to political institutions, processes and politicians, evidence of increasing democratic inequality and the declining reach and standing of the major parties—to mention just a few issues—have all focused attention on 'disaffected democrats' who, for a range of reasons, feel disconnected from traditional mainstream politics. Parliament 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 modernisation that has attempted to 'close the gap' between parliament and society. In many ways it is the select committees that have evolved as the interface between the institution of Parliament and the public. They have increased levels of scrutiny, opened-up new areas of government to the public, demanded accounts from politicians and their overall impact has been significant. But the internal success of select committees in terms of scrutinising the government has arguably not kept pace with the role of committees in terms of engaging with the public about their work.

2. In 2012 the House of Commons voted to accept a recommendation from the Liaison Committee to introduce a new 'core task' for all select committees that focused on public engagement as a distinctive and explicit factor of their work. Many committees had been proactive in relation to public engagement for some time, but others had not and this new core task was intended to achieve an element of systematic public engagement, just as the initial introduction of core tasks in 2010 had been designed to deliver 'systematic scrutiny'. But how have select committees responded to the introduction of the new core task on public engagement? This question provides the focus of this report.

3. The research was undertaken between January and June 2015 and included three main elements: Stage One involved detailed comparative case studies into the work of five select committees (Business, Innovation and Skills; Work and Pensions; Justice; Science and Technology; Political and Constitutional Reform); Stage Two involved the detailed analysis of a variety of select committee reports and a large scale on-line survey of all those individuals and organisations that had submitted evidence to a select committee; Stage Three involved a series of interviews with MPs, civil servants, ministers, parliamentary staff, social media specialists and those who had engaged with committees in order to drill down to the issues and themes revealed in the desk research, survey and case studies. In total, over fifty interviews were conducted. Three core conclusions emerge from this research:

a)  There has been a significant shift within the select committee system to taking public engagement seriously and this is reflected in many examples of innovation.

b)  However, this shift has not been systematic and levels of public engagement vary significantly from committee to committee.

c)  A more vibrant and systematic approach to public engagement is urgently needed but this will require increased resources, a deeper appreciations of the distinctive contribution that select committees can make and, perhaps most important, a deeper cultural change at Westminster.

4. This report therefore details innovations in relation to the use of social media, the structure of inquiries and innovative outreach. Some committees have engaged with the public in order to select the topics for inquiries and most have augmented inquiries by widening outreach. 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% (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.

5. However, the research conducted for this report also illustrates how 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 but others adopting a far more restrained approach. The reasons for this finding are complex and are examined in some detail in this report. Key issues include the focus and policy area of the committee, concerns about over-inflating the public's expectations, a lack of knowledge about how to 'do' public engagement, a lack of resources, the role of the Chair in terms of putting engagement at the heart of the committee's work and the need to focus on 'the art of translation' vis-à-vis committee activities so that invitations, reports and all forms of communication are accessible to a range of audiences. Developing these capabilities would mark a major step-change in current practice.

6. 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, scrutinising draft bills, holding pre-appointment hearings and examining the administration of departments. Public engagement should not therefore been seen as an 'add on' but as an underlying element of all committee activity.

7. The main research-based recommendations of this report therefore focus attention not simply on institutional reforms, technology and resources but 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 outstanding agenda setting and scrutiny activity that are undertaken. Parliament matters. It matters because agenda-setting and scrutiny inquiries can contribute to wider systemic policy making capacities. It matters because the committee system offers an opportunity for MPs (both individually and collectively) to demonstrate exactly what they do and why it matters. It matters because committees exist at the nexus or interface between the governors and the governed. Inquiries thus 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.

8. This report illustrates that many committees are actually 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 built-upon and extended during the 2015-20 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 can this be achieved'? The research presented in this report leads to a ten-point set of inter-related recommendations (below) 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 distant.

Building Public Engagement: Ten Steps to Achieving Change

·  Focus



·  Meaning


·  Recommendation


·  Embrace


·  Select Committees must not see public engagement as an after-thought or 'add-on' to their day-to-day activities but as a core way of undertaking scrutiny and oversight while also building public confidence. ·  That the Liaison Committee consider how the role of public engagement might be reaffirmed. Also promote the notions of 'breadth' and 'depth' in relation to public engagement.

·  Think Big


·  Committees who 'think big' in terms of topics, who anticipate major issues, who become multi-platform communicators or who simply adopt a positive and proactive approach to their role and activity are likely to enjoy most success. ·  Involve the public in topic-selection, utilise a range of off-line and on-line platforms and be willing to work with other committees.

·  Nurture


·  Building relationships takes time and this is particularly true when working with specific sections of society. Committee staff are vital in terms of relationship building and often act as crucial ambassadors. ·  Adopt a programme of informal committee activity and visits, utilise intermediaries or rapporteurs and emphasise listening-skills above talking-powers.

·  Piggyback


·  Committees facing limitations in terms of staff, expertise, time, etc. but there is no need to try and reinvent the wheel. Be willing to nurture relationships with pre-existing networks in order to maximise the 'breadth' and 'depth' of engagement. ·  Once topics have been selected or themes identified committee staff should work with a number of intermediary organisations and existing on-line communities (like Mumsnet, Money Saving Expert, etc.) in order to promote committee activities. Facebook is a key but under-utilised resource and consideration should be given for how monthly committee reports and calls for evidence might be circulated more aggressively.

·  Democratise


·  Building public engagement is not just a challenge for select committees but also for those organisations that claim to represent sections of society. Committees must attempt to question just how legitimate any claim to talk 'on behalf of the public' actually are. ·  Committee guidance for those giving evidence to select committees, either in writing or through oral evidence, should be updated to include some discussion of consultative processes. How have members been consulted? How were they consulted? How will feedback be provided?

·  Professionalise


·  The culture and procedures of Parliament are arguably not well-equipped to take on the challenge of public engagement. ·  The nature of parliamentary life is changing for both MPs and staff. New social demands, new digital technologies, etc. all require adaptation in the sense of new resources and new skills.

·  Deliberate


·  The work of select committees needs to evolve from the interrogation of witnesses towards deliberation with witnesses. This is crucial in relation to forming relationships and engaging with previously disconnected elements of society. ·  Think more creatively about how issues are broached in committee sessions, about who can ask questions, about how social media can be used to widen and multiply engagements and possibly even about how forms of deliberative democracy might be commissioned to feed into the work of a committee.

·  Difference


·  Different communities express themselves in different ways. Therefore a fairly narrow approach to communication and engagement based around formal text-based documents and evidence sessions will inevitably exclude certain sections of society. ·  Doing politics differently - in the sense of understanding that citizen engagements are increasingly fluid and increasingly associated with single issues rather than aggregated party programmes; also that political expression can take many forms (dance, music, writing, art, etc.) - represents both a challenge and an opportunity for select committees. Accepting submissions of evidence in the form of short-videos or recorded conversations could complement existing methods of engagement.

·  Location, Layout, Language


·  A critical element of any engagement strategy has to be an acknowledgement of the role of place, language, dress, etc. The Palace of Westminster was not designed to foster public engagement. ·  Dark suits are a professional uniform that does very little to promote public engagement. Getting out of SW1 is vital, as is thinking about how the layout of a room can create hidden barriers.

·  Connect


·  Select committees need to 'join  up' with a whole range of internal units and activities that may offer expertise and capacity in terms of engagement. ·  A closer relationship with the Education Department, the Outreach Department, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, etc. could all add value and new opportunities for committees.

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 30 November 2015