As campaigners enter the New Year, it’s natural to reflect on whether our methods of influencing remain effective. This certainly seems to have been the case for XR, who announced a drastic switch in tactics over the festive period.
Now that I’ve hooked your attention with a snappy intro and an allusion to the merits of direct action in creating change, let me change tack and focus your attention on Westminster’s Select Committees (honestly, bear with me).
Is it still worth engaging with Select Committees? Here are my thoughts on the topic.
1. A throwback to genuine engagement
It’s easy to feel apathetic about policy consultations. With resources – not least staff time – scarce, we can’t afford to invest time in these processes unless they move the dial. Yet, increasingly, it feels to many like we’re just going through the motions and allowing decision-makers, at the end, to say: “You can’t complain about our policy, you’ve engaged in the process”.
Sometimes, all it seems to do is allow a shroud of legitimacy, leaving us wondering if a box ticking exercise is too intensive to be worth it in the first place.
However, in most cases, I think Select Committees buck this trend. The process is pretty open and transparent, anyone can visit the page listing open inquiries. Submitting briefings might take time but it’s easy to draw a line between that time and the fruits of your labour; getting into a report, being invited as a witness to a session, potentially even shifting policy further down the line.
The process is far from perfect, but the cross-party nature does give Select Committees an air of evidence-led policy making that we’re all perhaps craving. For campaigners and organisations dipping their toes into public affairs, Select Committees are a good place to start and contributing evidence to a final report might be a straightforward first milestone to set.
2. Learn from those engaging well
I might be oversimplifying things, but a lot of public affairs is often quite formulaic. There are lots of organisations out there which respond to almost every inquiry hitting their brief – learn from them.
Organisations such as Save the Children, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and Index on Censorship consistently submit high-quality evidence in their respective fields and are often asked to appear as witnesses further down the line.
Check your work against their blueprints, are you hitting the right tone? Are you being as succinct as possible? What appears to be working for others?
Obviously, don’t sacrifice your expertise in an effort to game the system. But having a point of reference in previous examples of submissions can be helpful when drafting one yourself.
3. It ain’t perfect
While the process might be good in comparison to the other avenues, Select Committees still have their flaws. Civil society is often represented on panels, but it’s often the same old faces (disclaimer: I love the same old faces and this speaks to issues of Committees finding varied voices rather than a swipe at anyone regularly appearing as a witness.)
The politics – though more amicable than in the main chamber – still bubbles away. I have never been so frustrated as watching a particular MP ask the same loaded question around small boat crossings week after week, only to be given the same answer time and time again. Party politics remains and political point scoring still exists in the rooms with weird curvy tables and horrible carpets.
It’s also true that while the Government must respond to all recommendations in a report, it is not obligated to act on them. So, I guess there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done there.
But overall, I’ve not given up on Select Committees, and you could certainly waste far more time trying to engage in the policy process elsewhere.
If you’re thinking about submitting evidence to a Select Committee inquiry, the House of Commons publishes guidance to help you do it effectively.
We’ve looked at Select Committees in Westminster. Do you want to share different insights for campaigners focused on committees operating in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland? Get in touch.