Could do better, but could also do worse

I was on the Westminster Hour last night, talking about select committees (the feature starts about 35 mins in). Unfortunately they only selected one quote, in response to the question ‘what could select committees do better’. In fact the results of our project on the policy influence of select committees are quite positive, and in the rest of the interview I said as much.

We looked at the initial government response to nearly 2000 recommendations from seven different committees over 13 years, and then painstakingly traced what ultimately happened to them (with a lot of help from a team in parliament!). We also looked at things like what the recommendation called for, and how much a change to government policy it would be. We found that 40% of recommendations get a fairly or very positive response from government. And it turns out this isn’t just lip service: looking at what happened to the same set of recommendations long-term, half were ultimately implemented. This means that some recommendations that received a lukewarm or negative initial government response were actually taken up.

There are limitations to this kind of quantitative analysis. It’s difficult to tell whether the government does something because of a select committee, or because it’s getting the same suggestions from other groups. Quite a lot of recommendations are trivial, say for the disclosure of information. Or sometimes examining recommendations underestimates influence if the government realises they have a problem in the course of the inquiry, before the report even comes out.

We therefore supplemented the analysis of recommendations with almost 60 interviews. From these we have built up a more subtle picture of committee influence, including contribution to wider debate, drawing together of expert evidence, and spotlighting policy issues and changing priorities within departments. But the least visible of these forms of influence might be the most significant: generating fear. The government anticipates the potential response of the committee and thinks about how it might look if there was an inquiry and how decisions might be justified. In the words of one interviewee, government tries to make policy ‘committee proof’.

Our full report will be out in May, launch date tbc. Do get in touch if you’re interested in attending, or if you’ll be attending the PSA conference then come and see us on Thursday 21st April, when we’ll be presenting our findings.

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