The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system Contents

6Communicating our work

Introduction

202.Having considered the ‘inputs’ into select committees in chapter 4, we now turn to consider their ‘outputs’. Committees’ outputs—reports, the website and social media, communications and their ‘language’—are all forms of public engagement. These are the main ways in which committees communicate their work with the wider public.

203.Reports are the most visible committee outputs, and the most numerous: 41 were published in May 2019 alone. They have a characteristic format, with a summary and analysis of the evidence leading to conclusions and recommendations which are also listed in full at the end. When published, they are usually the most up-to-date appraisal of the topic in hand and therefore an important source of “genuine, factual and accurate” information for the sector concerned and, as we heard, for journalists.248 They are also the key vehicle for securing media coverage of an inquiry’s findings and they are often accompanied by visually attractive and accessible summaries and promotion on social media. In order to provide greater recognition of the diligent work put into producing reports, the format of authors should be amended to allow for a “lead report specialist/author” to be denoted in the inside cover page. This can both provide recognition to the individual but also clarify the point of contact for external audiences.

204.Committees have increased their online presence significantly in recent years and now reach a very sizeable audience. Over the last 12 months, committee web pages have been viewed 5.5 million times and, across our 34 Twitter accounts, we have a combined following of 316,000 people, many of whom follow multiple accounts. People are also engaging with our content: we have had 2.8 million interactions (retweets, likes and clicks) with our posts and 4 million video views since setting up our accounts.

Reports

Focus and timing

205.In its 2012 report, our predecessor committee encouraged committees to keep their reports short and to avoid too many recommendations, and we endorse and restate this approach. In reaching this recommendation, they had taken into account the findings of the UCL Constitution Unit whose research found that the great number of recommendations in some reports could detract from their impact.249

206.The Health and Social Care Committee said that, in their experience, one of the “critical building blocks for effective scrutiny” was “targeting and focus” and that producing “short, targeted and focused” reports on suicide prevention and anti-microbial resistance, combined with engaging with the Government’s work programme and follow-up, had contributed to their impact.250 However, the majority of committee reports are probably rather longer. Professor Christine Whitehead, an experienced specialist adviser, said that attempts to shorten reports had “generally proved unsuccessful”.251 She explained why:

The committee specialists are very competent—and work extremely hard—but they do have to work within what is determined by the terms of reference, what the chair regards as particularly relevant, what can be accepted unanimously by the Committee and to a rather more limited extent what might be likely to catch the wider press and public interest.

207.The timing of reports is also important. Kayley Hignell of Citizens’ Advice said that the Work and Pensions Committee’s series of reports on Universal Credit were particularly well-timed, having been published “at points where there is still time to change the timetable […] [which] made a massive difference”.252 In addition, we heard that their repeatedly returning to the issue had “help[ed] to keep the problems with the system in the public eye”,253 thus maintaining pressure on the Government. The International Development Committee said that committees’ ability to report quickly on time sensitive or urgent issues was hampered by the “relatively long-winded” report publication process and suggested that, because of this, committees were resorting to sending letters.254 They suggested that a different output, which “whilst less burdensome than a report—is more formal than a letter”, might be needed. We agree that there is a need for different kinds of ‘communication’ from committees which, while formally agreed and reported to the House, are less formal than a report, with its rather cumbersome procedural apparatus, but which carry more weight and status than a letter and can be specifically addressed to the world. Such publications might be a paper analysing the evidence received so far or responding to what was heard in a public session, a summary of their interim findings which might invite people to respond to them, a more general update on their work partway through a long inquiry or a follow-up survey of the progress in implementing their recommendations.

Accessibility and dissemination

208.The format and style of committee reports came in for criticism from our witnesses who suggested that there needed to be a “review”255 or “re-think”256 of their design, structure and the way in which they are disseminated, all with a view to improving accessibility and increasing reach. For example, Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira and her colleagues at the University of Leeds said that reports were “very traditional” and had “remained unchanged for considerable time”.257 They continued:

The actual reports follow a text laden and printed driven format, which suits a narrow audience. The integration of photos and other visualizations would help to widen reports’ relevance and engagement potential […] reports may on occasion include graphs/scientific outputs, but very rarely do we see other types of illustrations […] Reports are also produced as a printed output, which results in (poor) html and pdf versions.

The Institute for Government’s suggestions for increasing the accessibility and reach of reports included avoiding overly-technical language, making sure that summaries were clear and concise and using charts and infographics to bring the information to life for the reader.258

209.Committees sometimes produce, in addition to standard reports, visually attractive and accessible overviews of their work at the end of an inquiry, explaining what the committee has done, who they have heard from and their key recommendations. We heard that this had become standard practice for the Health and Social Care Committee and is, no doubt, also the case for many others.259 These overviews, usually in HTML or Shorthand, are published alongside the main report, bringing together audio-visual material produced throughout the inquiry, and made available on the committee webpage and widely disseminated on social media (for more details and examples, see box 12 below). This type of output has proven popular with the public (some Shorthands have had more views that the report itself) and was also deemed to be a “positive step” by witnesses to this inquiry.260 Social media advertising has also allowed us to reach individuals who are interested in and following a subject, rather than a committee or an inquiry. Ideas for extending committees’ reach yet further included “informatics, podcasts, vlogs, summary leaflets”,261 taking a “digital first” approach to publication,262 and including social media buttons to allow readers to share relevant sections or quotes in HTML versions of reports.263 For example, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee has set up a personal podcast based on ongoing inquiries of the committee. Each episode is based on an informal conversation with expert participants from the inquiry, creating an accessible channel through which the inquiry can be communicated. It is possible to conceive of a situation in the future where the principal outputs of an inquiry are in some such much less formal format than the traditional report, or where the main output at least is a much more accessible product, supported by separate documents published by the committee which contain much of the (important and often necessary) analysis which underpins its findings.

210.We want our work to be accessible and to have a wide reach across a diverse range of audiences. To this end, reports should be ‘digital first’ and, where possible, be complemented (and perhaps eventually supplanted in some cases) by other digital formats which, chosen and designed with their needs in mind, bring our work to life for the wider public. Such outputs should be made under an order of the committee wherever possible. To enable committees to develop a ‘digital first’ approach to reports and produce complimentary digital assets requires greater capacity and resources. Provision should be made to expand the Web and Publications Unit so that they are able to provide the support that committees need to digitally innovate.

Box 13: New online formats for reports

If we want to engage and communicate effectively with the public, the material we produce needs to be tailored to their needs. With this in mind, committees are now using a variety of non-report outputs to explain their work and the findings which result from it.

The Energy and Climate Change Committee published the first ‘digital-first’ report in 2015. “Fuelling the debate: committee successes and future challenges” was hosted on its own website, thereby enabling the incorporation of video clips and infographics and necessitating the use of web-friendly copy.264

Committees now regularly produce digital reports using Shorthand, customised to reflect the House of Commons’ branding, which permits the use of high-quality visuals and web-friendly copy. Social Shorthands might be based on a report summary, set out a committee’s main recommendations or the ‘5 things learnt through this inquiry’. They are published alongside the main report and are not privileged, although of course are derived from committee-agreed content or messaging. Examples include:

The Environmental Audit Committee on Fixing fashion;265

The Foreign Affairs Committee on Relations with China;266and

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on No confidence motions.267

Some committees are also choosing to publish an overview of their report in a special html format, which allows for the use of charts, graphics and videos and a more eye-catching layout. Examples include:

The Transport Committee on Mobility as a service;268 and

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on High streets and town centres in 2030.269

211.Committees are also increasingly conscious of ensuring that the format of a report suits the needs of the particular group or groups concerned by its findings. The Petitions Committee took specific steps to ensure their recent report, Online abuse and the experience of disabled people, was accessible to their target audience. They published large print and easy read hard copies which were sent to all those who contributed to the inquiry, as well as producing an audio version and Shorthand.270 We heard other examples of committees using easy read in their other outputs, for example, calls for evidence and write ups of focus groups, which Mencap said was “invaluable and allow[ed] [many people] to participate”.271 In addition, some oral evidence sessions have been made accessible; for example, the Education Committee’s session with young people with special educational needs and disabilities was interpreted by BSL interpreters, live subtitled and some of the young people communicated using a palantypist.272

212.We do acknowledge, however, that it takes time and resources to prepare these outputs in addition to the standard report and that report publication timeframes and resource limitations do not always make this easy. However, when planned from the outset of the inquiry, as we considered in chapter 2, these additional outputs might be more easily achieved.

Publication

213.We were told that the more notice committees could give their stakeholders of a forthcoming report publication, the better. By giving more notice of publication, committees can increase the impact of their reports by working with outside organisations to give them added publicity. Kayley Hignell of Citizens’ Advice explained how this would help her organisation to promote and disseminate its findings:

Any notice you can provide to organisations such as ours […] allows us to amplify it and put it into our press grid and social media grids, to get what we are doing into our newsletters, to our advisers, to frontline staff and sometimes to the general public. At the moment, sometimes there is very limited notice on when something will be published.273

She suggested that three to seven days’ notice would be ideal, and Mark Lloyd of the Local Government Association explained that seven days’ notice would fit with his organisation’s weekly press grid and be “perfect for chiming with our forward programme”.274 Speaking from her perspective as a journalist, Carole Walker, former political correspondent at the BBC, described sometimes having to “quickly read, in the next hour, […] three reports” before the embargo was lifted the following day.275 Standing Order No. 134 provides that embargoed reports should be sent out seventy-two hours in advance of publication. We recommend that Standing Order No. 134 be amended to give committees complete discretion and flexibility over the timing and distribution of their embargoed reports before publication.

Online presence

The website

214.As part of a larger project to redesign the parliament website, the Parliamentary Digital Service is currently developing a new set of committee webpages for Commons and Lords select committees. The new webpages will be more accessible, mobile responsive and easier for our wide-ranging audiences to understand and navigate and, subject to any unforeseen complications, will be operational by the end of 2019. We hope that this reassures the critics of the current website who described the difficulties they had in keeping track of new inquiries276 and searching for and locating evidence and reports.277 The Hansard Society, which was particularly forceful in its criticism, said that the website did not give enough prominence to committees and their work, drawing a comparison with other legislatures which “do much more to augment the online presence of their committees and give them a distinct identity within the parliamentary setting”.278 We agree.

215.Particular efforts are being made to make the committee webpages more accessible to the public. Further iterations aim to make it easier for the public to search for the issues which interest them, rather than, as is currently the case, first having to identify the relevant inquiries. We liked Nesta’s suggestion for increasing accessibility yet further with a “searchable mechanism for exploring recommendations […] and a ‘traffic light’ system indicating what the recommendation is, who it was aimed at, and whether [it] [was] responded to”.279

216.We also note the point made by Nesta that the new website should be designed to accommodate, or at least facilitate, the use of different digital engagement tools, as discussed in chapter 3.280 This would help to integrate digital engagement into an inquiry and make it easier for people to follow and find all relevant information. The new website should also be able to accommodate the standardised form for written submissions that we recommended in paragraph 107. It should also make it easier for members of the public to find and follow correspondence of the sort mentioned in paragraph 139 above, perhaps through a system of tags.

217.As the Hansard Society pointed out, the website is our “’window on the world’”.281 Our website is Parliament’s main means of communicating with the public. For many, it will be their first and only point of access to our work. We are pleased that efforts to replace our existing website are underway. However, it is critical that this work is completed at the earliest opportunity. The new site must be easy to navigate for those who have no prior knowledge of the workings of Parliament. It should be easy for the public to find out about how the issues that interest and concern them are being debated and investigated by Parliament and its committees. The depth and breadth of select committee activity should be showcased, and engagement by the public in their work through the website should be made easier.

Social media

218.Thanks to the Web and Publications Unit (WPU), committees are now skilled and prolific users of social media. Every committee has its own Twitter account and regularly tweets about its work, publicising and live-tweeting and live-streaming oral evidence sessions, inquiry launches and reports. Committees’ use of Twitter is sophisticated, innovative and live to emerging trends. Using clips of evidence sessions, specially made short films, graphics and animations, they inform the public about their work, stimulate interest and encourage responses. Committees’ tweets generally attract 60,000–90,000 ‘engagements’ (retweets, likes and clicks) per month, with a record high reached in March 2019. The Health and Social Care Committee team said that on several occasions their live tweeting of evidence sessions had generated more interest than the publication of some of their reports.282

219.Committees also use Twitter as a way of encouraging the public to feed into their work, sourcing questions from them to put to ministers and experts in oral evidence sessions (for example, #AskSamGyimah and #AskPickles283), consulting them on topics for new inquiries (see, for example, the My Science inquiry discussed on page 45) and holding digital debates.284 Ruth Chambers of Green Alliance described a recent example:

The EFRA Committee had all the DEFRA ministers before it to talk about departmental business—very important, but quite a dry and dusty subject for the public. How do you get the public interested in that? What they did was to use Twitter and a new hashtag called #askDEFRAministers. It got a very large response and a very large number of questions—probably too many; more than they were expecting—but it allowed them to act as a bridge between the public and ministers in a way that perhaps Committees are not that used to doing.285

220.We were given some constructive suggestions as to how we could improve our use of Twitter: making it “more systematic” and more “regular”, encouraging greater consistency of use between committees and using it to proactively seek out new networks and sector groups.286 Speaking from her journalist’s perspective, Esther Webber of The Times described finding the “proliferation” of committee Twitter accounts “overwhelming” and asked whether they could be streamlined in any way.287 A similar request was made by students at Warlingham Academy (consulted by the Outreach Team on our behalf), who suggested having an “overall [account] which gives info on interesting inquiries and updates and educates about impact of select committees”. Efforts to streamline and regularise committees’ use of Twitter are underway and we note that the recently established @commonsliaison account is going some way to performing this function by tweeting a weekly summary of committees’ activities.

221.The Hansard Society questioned whether Twitter was in fact enabling committees to extend their reach beyond the Westminster political bubble and stakeholder groups.288 They suggested that we were “mis-prioritising” Twitter over Facebook, which their research had shown was much more popular among the general public. We do, however, make wide use of the House of Commons Facebook page, both as a means of publicising our work and encouraging engagement. The Petitions Committee described how they had used the platform to host a discussion thread to consult on the draft recommendations for its Online abuse and the experiences of disabled people report. Committees have also used Facebook as a mechanism to survey specific groups of the public as part of the inquiry evidence gathering process. They have also experimented with other channels, such as Instagram289 and YouTube,290 and the WPU will continue to explore how committees can further diversify their use of online platforms and networks. The WPU has also been experimenting with using ‘social listening software’ to help committees gauge the public mood on an issue and join existing conversations. This could, resources permitting, even be used to choose the topics of inquiries in the future.

Photography in committee rooms

222.Photography in committee rooms is forbidden unless permission is obtained in advance, and if a photo is taken without permission and disseminated on social media, the Serjeant at Arms will require its removal. In line with the greater variety in their activities, their wide use of social media and efforts to engage the public in their work, there are often occasions when committees want to take photos in committee rooms and fall foul of this rule. The current rules on photography no longer reflect modern practice and hamper committees’ attempts to engage the public in their work and set it in its proper context. We recommend that the Administration Committee review and update the rules to allow committees discretion about the use of photography.

Ongoing campaigning and communications

223.We heard there was “huge opportunity” for committees to develop a wider communications strategy291 and promote their work when it becomes topical and insert it into public debate.292 We were struck by the comment made by Ed Cox of the RSA that committees appeared to be limited to “doing a ministerial grilling, publishing a report and getting on the “Today” programme”.293

224.As we hope this report demonstrates, committees’ work is more rounded than this and, although not referred to as such, we do plan communications around inquiries, for example, planning media and social media activity and the timing and style of reports. Many committees do seek to be agents of change as well as post-hoc scrutineers. However, there is undoubtedly scope for committees to expand this approach and put in place a wider communications strategy which would entail looking for opportunities to promote their work long after an inquiry has ended. For example, committees could opine on or respond to relevant events, reiterate their recommendations and claim policy developments as resulting from their work.

225.With such a strategy in place and taking the approach discussed in chapter 2 of planning, prioritising and following-up their work, committees would be operating more like campaigning organisations, which continually look for opportunities to highlight issues and further their cause in a range of different ways in Parliament, the media and beyond. Some committees are in fact already operating in this way. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee adopted a “campaigning role” in the course of its Fake News and Disinformation inquiry, “push[ing] at the boundaries of select committee rules and past practice” and undertaking many “firsts” in the process, including a public, live broadcast oral evidence session held abroad; the first live twitter streaming of an oral evidence session and the first ‘international grand committee’.294 Similarly, the Work and Pensions Committee’s ongoing work on universal credit was credited with “keep[ing] the problems with the system in the public eye”.295

226.Adopting this approach across all committees would clearly require us to be more strategic and call for additional member and staff time.296 Space for this type of communications activity could be factored into a committee’s forward work programme and would have to be balanced against the other work undertaken, but it will almost certainly entail increased resources for the central communications functions of the Committee Office.

227.Despite the commitment and professionalism of some excellent media officers, committees are not having the media impact of which they are capable. They are also not generally pursuing the wider campaigning role which is open to them. This is because of resources. Most committees share a single media officer with a number of other committees. This means that hardworking media officers are spread too thinly, having to work much longer hours than those for which they are contracted and that opportunities for media impact and profile are missed. The House Service should aim to provide all departmental select committees with a dedicated media officer within the next 18 months. If that cannot be achieved within current capacity, then a bid for greater resources should be made to the House of Commons Commission. There is little point undertaking first rate scrutiny if we lack the resources to tell the world about it.

The impact and accessibility of the language of scrutiny

228.We heard that, although familiar and well-used by all of us, the language used in Parliament appears rather alien to members of the public. Our use of terms such as ‘evidence’, ‘witnesses’, ‘inquiry, ‘select committee’ and ‘terms of reference’ was described as “confusing”,297 and “legalistic and off-putting”298 and as suggesting a “very specific mode of (elite) engagement”.299 Consequently, as Professor Emma Crewe and Dr Ayesha Saddiqi observed, “it is only lawyers who appear to be totally at ease in the court-like atmosphere and language […] of formal committee sessions”.300 We were therefore not surprised to hear that the Hansard Society’s research into the public’s attitudes to Parliament had shown that language was a barrier to their engagement.301 Indeed, the consultations with hard-to-reach groups across the country, which were conducted for us by the Parliamentary Outreach Team, yielded similar results. When asked what select committees could do to encourage more people to engage with their work, answers included “use accessible language” and “simplify the language”. Website user testing for the Web and Publications Unit also revealed the fact that the language we use is a barrier.

229.The Hansard Society recommended a wide-ranging review of parliamentary language, particularly in relation to select committees.302 We see no need to wait for a language review. Committees should feel emboldened to adapt their language as they see fit, keeping the needs of their audience in mind, and the use of technical terms in the Standing Orders should be no impediment to this. By way of example, we could invite people to give us their “views, concerns and experiences” on a topic and, instead of “witnesses”, we could refer to “guests” or “participants”. We could also start by referring to just “committees” in our communications, leaving out the term “select” which is confusing to the public.

Conclusion

230.Committees’ outputs have grown exponentially in recent years. From Shorthands to talking head video clips and animations, committees are telling the public about their work in a wide range of eye-catching ways, as well as turning to online tools to increase public participation. We are grateful to committee staff, particularly the Web and Publications Unit, for encouraging innovation and for their enthusiasm for helping us to reach a wider audience. The formal structures and rules of the House should not be an inhibition on experiment except where absolutely necessary. We encourage committees to continue to innovate and be radical about how they engage with the world beyond Westminster and Whitehall. We look forward to continuing this approach and embedding it within a wider communications strategy. The formal report may not always be the best or most effective output from an inquiry in the future—what matters is what works, and different outputs will be appropriate to different purposes and audiences. As committees increasingly engage throughout an inquiry with their different interlocutors and stakeholders they must be able to communicate the progress of an inquiry effectively as it goes along. The dialogue which is an increasing feature of their work should be a continuous and two-way dialogue. In ten years’ time, when we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the departmental committees, it may well be that the conventional report is an exception rather than a rule.


250 Health and Social Care Committee Team (SCA0047)

251 Professor Emeritus Christine Whitehead (SCA0079)

254 International Development Committee (SCA0051)

255 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

256 Professor Matthew Flinders (SCA0053)

257 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

258 Institute for Government (SCS0038)

259 Health and Social Care Committee Team (SCA0047)

260 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

261 Professor Matthew Flinders (SCA0053)

262 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

263 Institute for Government (SCS0038)

271 Royal Mencap Society (SCA0065)

272 Education Committee (SCA0063)

277 Q93; Hansard Society (SCA0067)

278 Hansard Society (SCA0067)

279 Nesta (SCA0071)

280 Nesta (SCA0071)

281 Hansard Society (SCA0067)

282 Health and Social Care Committee Team (SCA0047)

283 The Committee responded to the contributors by publishing a timestamped link to the relevant section of the oral evidence session with the answer to their question, see Secretary of State answers the public’s #AskPickles questions, 22 January 2014

284 Petitions Committee (SCS0039)

286 Institute for Government (SCS0038)

288 Hansard Society (SCA0067)

294 Mrs Josephine Willows (SCA0057)

296 Tom Tugendhat MP (SCA0050)

297 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

298 Hansard Society (SCA0067)

299 Professor Matthew Flinders (SCA0053)

300 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (SCA0055)

301 Hansard Society (SCA0067)

302 Hansard Society (SCA0067)




Published: 9 September 2019