How to use select committees to influence policy

Select Committee Witness Guide

Date posted: 10/01/2019

Select committees provide the ideal platform for getting your views heard by the right people at the right time. An estimated 30-40 percent of select committee recommendations are adopted by the government*, so being invited to appear in front of one is an important opportunity to directly influence its members and affect the political discourse.

‘When done right, parliamentary hearings and public inquiries represent a unique opportunity for business leaders to state their case’ – Cloisters Barrister Ed Williams QC.

This post will focus on how to make the most of your time as a select committee witness. If you would like to find out more about how to get involved with a select committee, click here.

Media coverage of individual committees has more than tripled in recent years, making it more important than ever to be on top form. With that in mind, here is a list of our six top tips and techniques:


Preparation is key

As a select committee witness, your role is to speak freely and present your point of view. The committee members will ask questions that help them to unpack or understand an issue, but you could potentially be probed further. For this reason, it is vital that you have a firm grasp of your narrative, along with facts and evidence to go with it. Equally importantly, you must ensure that it can withstand (sometimes extensive) stress testing.

Start to monitor and look up previous evidence sessions to ensure that you are up to speed with what others are saying, and to identify avenues of questioning. This will ensure you are always able to answer effectively and if necessary prepare your side of the argument.

Sometimes select committees call several rounds of witnesses in the same session, and it is possible that you may be asked for your comments on evidence given by earlier witnesses. Allow plenty of time to get through security and arrive in time to hear what everyone has to say so that you are able to take advantage of every speaking opportunity.

When preparing, you shouldn’t focus on politics alone. Think about how personal and corporate reputation may be affected and how the media will cover it. It is always wise to conduct some research to see which other organisations are trying to achieve the same goals as you. By collaborating with like-minded organisations, you can convey a unified message, which will have greater strength and, consequently, a higher chance of being adopted.

By preparing well, you will be able to answer with confidence, and this will set you apart from other witnesses and help propel your message further.


Know your audience

Another part of your preparation should be researching the committee members and reviewing previous evidence calls of the select committee on which you will be appearing. Through this exercise, you may pick up on inclinations and agendas.

If you can see yourself in the firing line for any particular reason, you should prepare for a robust line of questioning. Remember, individual MPs may feel it necessary to take a certain stance for political gain, press support or to appeal to constituents or groups. Being prepared for angles that people may wish to take will give you confidence when being questioned.

It is also worth noting here that just because a member shares the same politics as you, it doesn’t mean that you will be aligned with each other. Members often have their own pull factors and select committees exist to delve into issues, not to give the government answers that they want to hear.

Increased exposure has meant that select committees have become a mechanism to propel political careers, with members becoming increasingly likely to take advantage of that fact. Whilst this can make select committees a great opportunity to affect change, it can also mean you fall in the firing line.


Ever heard of ‘KISS’?

Keep It Simple, Stupid. Committee members are unlikely to be experts in your field. Using technical language or being unclear will often cause you to lose members’ interest. Committee members tend to be busy folk who will check their phones and emails, making it tough to keep them focussed. By disengaging them through complicated narrative, you will lose them and the task to regain that focus will be much harder than retaining it in the first instance.

Despite simplification, the chances are you will have to explain something that they do not understand. Use a tone that is polite, informative and respectful. You may feel like you are teaching grandmother to suck eggs, but they aren’t the experts, hence why they have called on you in the first place.


Don’t get spun

Although evidence calls are supposed to be fact-finding missions, based on the lines of questioning that you have been briefed on following your invitation to appear as a select committee witness, you may find that you get some left-field questions. This is particularly true for high-profile issues, where media attention is extensive and committee members seek opportunities to create politically charged sound bites.

Watch out for editorial spin on facts that you offer. Spinning is a tactic used to trip witnesses up and the reasons for this go back to the earlier point about agendas and gain. If you have prepared well, you will know who to watch out for and will be less likely to fall into the trap. This should not dissuade you from agreeing to be a witness, however, as the opportunity far outweighs the risk – it is just something about which to be mindful.


Don’t spin

Under questioning, it’s okay to say you don’t know. Select committees are broadcast live and whatever you say will be out there (permanently). Rather than try to blag your way through an answer, it’s okay to hold your hands up and say you do not know or that you will follow up. If you lie, bend the truth or evade answering the question, MPs will pull you up on it and if they don’t notice, the media likely will.


Acing your narrative

When thinking about what you will say, bring your inner salesperson. Emotion sells;
tell an emotive story that takes the committee members on a journey. Talk about who is affected, perhaps even using personal case studies, and include names and real-life examples, which can make it more relatable. This tactic works particularly well if you can prepare case studies of members’ constituents or examples of problems in their constituencies. By making it relevant, you can create invested interest and political will to act.

Statistics are important too, and it is good to have some numbers and percentages to hand. If your statistics are particularly striking, think about how you can use speaking techniques to emphasise them.

Always provide well-thought-out solutions, rather than just stating the problem. Make specific recommendations that can feasibly be implemented. This shouldn’t be a grand or complicated solution, but do try to think of some actionable things that members can take forward, however small.

In order to increase the chances of your solution being implemented, try to end all answers with your recommendations; repetition can be critical to success. This will ensure your points are included in the minutes and increase your chances of members taking note.

If the first question has not been directed at any particular witness, try to get in early and answer the question, provided you have something substantive to say. This will allow you to influence the direction of the debate from the start, and with a well-rehearsed narrative, you will have the confidence to do so. You will be clear on your key messages, delivery and have more capacity to focus on speaking techniques that will ensure you are heard.


A final thought

The underlying theme here is preparation – if you have done your research, considered the potential traps and agendas that may arise, and thought of strategies about how to deal with them, you’ll come out on top. Be calm and focused, and your message will get through.

On a final, and perhaps most important note, try to enjoy the experience!


*source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-31961356

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