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Select committees must reflect on own success and failure says IfG

Select committees need to recognise that long-term impact can be as important as short-term change and get better at reflecting on their own successes and failures, a new report has suggested.

The latest report from the Institute for Government looks at the impact select committees have on government and how the committees measure it.

The research, based on over 40 interviews as well as roundtables and informal meetings, suggests that while some committees have successfully raised their own profile, it is less clear “whether this increased visibility led to a corresponding increase in their impact on government”. 

The institute looked in particular at the impact of three committees; the Defence select committee, the Home Affairs select committee, and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

It suggests that committees ought to spend more time cultivating their “softer” sources of influence, such as expertise and relationships, and be less quick to resort to their formal status and powers.

The report author, Dr Hannah White, identifies eight lessons about the relationship between scrutiny and impact on government. She argues that select committees must:

  • Work out what impact they are trying to achieve (valuing long as well as short term change) and consider what approach will be most effective in securing it.
  • Realise the value of predictable scrutiny and pester power, and recognise that impact can result from an inquiry process as well as its outputs.
  • Make conscious decisions about the trade-offs involved in scrutiny and remember that sometimes it can create a ‘win-win’ for government and parliament.
  • Recognise that sometimes their ability to achieve impact will be influenced by factors beyond their control.

She also argues that the Commons select committee system is not set up to identify its successes and learn from its failures. If committees are to fulfil their potential to improve the effectiveness of government, they need to shift their focus from fulfilling tasks to achieving outcomes.

They need to adopt a nuanced understanding of impact, recognising that long-term influence, which may be difficult to measure, can be just as important as the short-term impact that is more readily attributable to committee activity.  

Dr White said: “Our research shows that while all committees have the potential to deliver a range of different kinds of impact on government, in practice certain approaches to inquiries tend to be better at delivering particular types of impact than others. There is no single model which will be appropriate for all committees, let alone all inquiries, and committees need to be clear about what outcomes they are trying to achieve when they decide what approach to take in each case.”

(Picture by: PA Wire)

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