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Research, UK Parliament

Evidence-based policy – Problem 3: Getting academic research to parliamentary select committees

Recent blog posts have focused on challenges faced by researchers seeking to influence public policy, including getting academic research to government policy markers (by Nick Hillman) and ‘Six reasons why it is unrealistic for research to drive policy’ (by James Lloyd). In this piece, Andrew Le Sueur (Professor of Constitutional Justice at the University of Essex) reflects on his practical experiences of research used to influence parliamentarians’ thinking. It’s written primarily as a guide to academics interested in engaging with Parliament.

ALeS photo June 2016

By Andrew Le Sueur

For most of my academic career, I’ve engaged on and off with parliamentary select committees (the cross-party committees in the House of Commons and House of Lords that scrutinise government action and conduct evidence-based thematic inquiries). Sometimes this has been as a paid specialist adviser; sometimes as an expert submitting written or oral evidence for an inquiry.

The academics’ role

Academic research can contribute to shaping parliamentarians’ thinking and may in turn have an impact on government and public policy. But as Meg Russell and Meghan Benton show, the ways in which select committee ‘success’ should be measured is complex, though their generally upbeat conclusion is

“it is erroneous to assume that select committees are not influential on government policy. They are largely taken seriously in Whitehall, many of their recommendations go on to be implemented (though sometimes not until years later), and they have an important preventative effect in encouraging more careful consideration of policy within government departments.”

This blog post shares some of my personal experiences of contributing to the work of select committees since 1999 and tries to draw out some broader lessons. My interactions have come out of my research interests in across the broad fields of constitutional and administrative law (including freedom of information, judicial appointments, the role of the Lord Chancellor, court reform and the Crown Dependencies).

Academics work in two roles:

  • ‘front of house’ (providing written and oral evidence in response to calls from committees conducting particular thematic inquires) and
  • ‘back office’ (as specialist advisers, typically appointed on a modest daily fee to provide advice for the duration of an inquiry, which can last from a few weeks to several months or more).

These are different roles. In the former, the academic can and should be a promoter of a particular view of the world, based on her or his research; in the latter, the academic is expected to assume the role of an impartial expert. At a time when most academics need to have REF impact constantly in mind, it seems obvious that front of house work may (if you’re lucky) generate measureable impact. Back office work will not do so directly, though it provides an insider’s view of Parliament that can be helpful in deepening your understanding of the policy process.

Lords and Commons: different worlds?

Although the basic roles may seem similar across the House of Commons and House of Lords, there are some subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the chambers, which you should anticipate.

In the Lords, a specialist adviser feels more central to the action as he or she sits next to the chair of the committee around the horse-shoe shaped table whereas in the Commons the adviser sits at a separate table. Members of Lords Committees have (in my experience) considerably more practical experience and theoretical knowledge of the matters into which they are inquiring than members of a typical Commons committee.

In the Lords, the practice is to send a list of questions to witnesses a week before the hearing; Commons committees do not normally do this.

Commons clerks tend to be more ‘hands on’ and less deferential to specialist advisers than their counter-parts in the Lords.

Front of house work: submitting evidence

From the academic’s perspective, the aim here is to place your research in front of MPs. I have submitted written evidence four times (1999-2014) and appeared before committees to give oral evidence twice.

It is difficult to keep abreast of all calls for evidence from parliamentary committees working in your field. Mea culpa: in 2013, I completely missed a call for evidence by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) on complaints, an area on which I was actively researching. But all was not lost (see below). I suspect this experience is not unique. A question for academic departments is, therefore, how they can assist colleagues in keeping track of calls for evidence.

A committee’s call for evidence is unlikely to give you more than a couple of months to submit a written memorandum. In my experience, this often coincides with a busy period of teaching/marking/publishing deadlines.

Even a short memorandum (2 pages) can be helpful to a committee; do not feel that you have to produce a magnum opus. Short is good. Indeed, short is best. You really do not need to write a lot. As with all work destined for publication, ask a colleague or two to read and comment on it before pressing send.

In an ideal world, there will be a happy coincidence between your current or recent research project and a committee’s call for evidence. But this will be rare. What to do?

  • Option 1: carry out some speedy and necessarily small scale desk-based research. I did this in 2014 for the Lords Constitution Committee’s inquiry into the office of Lord Chancellor.
  • Option 2: resurrect research from the past. You may have ‘finished’ a project but if its subject matter, findings and analysis become timely, dust them down and turn them into a memorandum.

You do not need to be the sole author of a memorandum. If it makes sense to do so, work with a colleague in your department or elsewhere in producing a co-authored memorandum. Work within your academic networks to find co-authors and opportunities to contribute to memoranda.

Other people may draw on your research in drafting their memoranda. Fortunately, this happened to Varda Bondy and me when we missed the PASC call for evidence in 2013 (see above): written evidence by three complaints handlers referenced our project on designing administrative redress. Advice: if you cannot submit your own evidence, but have something published on the topic, draw this to the attention of people who are submitting written evidence or giving oral evidence in the hope that they will draw on it.

Accept that the committee may not engage with your argument/ findings/analysis. If what you are saying does not fit with the committee’s own view of the world your ideas will sink without trace. Example: in 2014 I gave written and oral evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee in which I argued that the office of Lords Chancellor should be abolished and the committee was wrong to be focusing on a single aspect of the mechanisms for protecting judicial independence and the rule of law. The committee did not take up these points. Question: is this REF impact? Probably not.

Even if the committee accepts your argument and incorporates it into a recommendation in its final report, do not expect Government to agree. Example: in 1999, a Commons committee described my written evidence as ‘persuasive’ and recommended that the draft FoI Bill be amended to include a duty to give reasons for administrative decisions. The Government did not accept this. Question: could this type of scenario count as REF impact? Probably.

Most people who submit written evidence are not called to give oral evidence. If you are called, you are likely to find the first time rather nerve wracking but (in my experience) less so thereafter. Good oral evidence sessions are conversational rather than confrontational. Committees are keen to get the best out of the experts appearing for them. If you have an opportunity to give oral evidence, watch previous hearings online and seek advice from colleagues during your preparations.

You will usually be listed to appear alongside one or two other academics. Committees like to hear from academics at different stages of their careers, so don’t think it’s an activity only for senior researchers. When I gave evidence on the Lord Chancellor to the Lords Constitution Committee, I shared the table with a post doc researcher and a senior lecturer. When I gave evidence to the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I shared the table with a research fellow.

As noted above, in the Lords you will be sent lines of questioning a week or so in advance of your appearance, which helps preparation. The best you’ll get in the Commons is a chat with the clerk over the phone about some likely lines of questioning.

Back office work: the specialist adviser

I have been appointed as a specialist adviser to the Commons Constitutional Affairs/Justice committee on several occasions (in relation to the supreme court proposals, judicial appointments and the Crown Dependencies) and the Lords Constitution Committee (judicial appointments).

Positions as specialist advisers are not normally advertised. Except for the first time (when I was interviewed by a clerk), invitations have simply arrived by email. I have accepted all invitations, however pressured I have been with teaching/ marking/publishing deadlines. Appointments have been for between 2-12 months. A daily fee is paid along with travel expenses.

The tasks I have carried out varied somewhat from inquiry to inquiry. They include:

  • advising on potential witnesses
  • drafting lines of questions for witnesses
  • drafting background papers
  • briefing the committee orally
  • reviewing written evidence
  • attending most committee meetings (usually on a weekly or fortnightly basis)
  • advising on the ‘heads of report’ (‘essay plan’)
  • working with the clerk to draft the final report.

The influence one has on the direction of an inquiry and the final recommendations can be significant. But I have always regarded the specialist adviser role as that of an impartial expert rather than a strong advocate for a particular view or cause. I see the role as one of public service rather than a route to impact for my own research.

So why take on a role? For me, one reason is that working as a specialist adviser has helped me gain a much deeper and broader understanding of Parliament and the policy-making process than I could have gained only as an external observer. This has helped me in other research projects.

Specialist advisers need to be willing and able to work as part of a team, liaising with the clerk, any in-house specialist, the chair of the committee, and members. I have seen one relationship breakdown.

There will be some public recognition of your role as a specialist adviser (in the report, perhaps also on the floor of the House). This is helpful in building your reputation and profile but probably contributions nothing to REF impact.

About the author:

Andrew Le Sueur is Professor of Constitutional Justice at the University of Essex and a co-investigator on the UKAJI project. In his spare time, he is a member of the Jersey Law Commission, currently leading a project on improving administrative redress.

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