09 July 2015

The MPs who have been elected to Commons select committees – some for the first time, others as old hands – doubtless have a good idea why they put themselves forward. But who can tell them what makes the difference between being a really effective select committee member and simply making up the numbers?

Based on the interviews and workshops conducted as part of its recently published research on the impact of select committees on government, the Institute for Government has published a short pamphlet which aims to do just that. The pamphlet draws together the views and ideas of people with experience of interacting with committees – MPs, ministers, civil servants and others – to provide advice to new committee members on how to approach their role.

So what is the advice for select committee members?

First, that it is important for a committee to decide on its overall direction. As a select committee member you need to know what outcomes you are trying to achieve so that your committee can maintain an overall sense of focus when you are making decisions about what impact you want from individual inquiries. At the same time, as an individual you should recognise your own unique contribution – play to your strengths, make the most of your knowledge and contacts, and show an appropriate degree of commitment to your committee’s work.

Being well informed is essential if you want to do your job well. This means you need to understand your department and the policy context it is operating in. This will enable you to identify the right subjects for inquiry and the right questions to ask, as well as earning you the respect of those with whom you interact.

When you are setting up inquiries, our interviewees told us you should think carefully about what evidence you need and design your approach accordingly. Your ability to get the best out of witnesses will depend on your ability to adapt your questioning style and question effectively. You also need to ensure that you design the outputs of your inquiries for the impact you are trying to achieve. Different sorts of reports and outputs may be appropriate depending on the audience you are trying to reach and what you are trying to tell them.

But a report is not the end of the inquiry process. We were told again and again that is important to follow up on inquiries and evaluate them. Sometimes even if your recommendations are adopted by government they may not lead to the outcome you envisaged. Stay focused on outcomes. Also, seek feedback from others – including witnesses, government and civil society – on whether your committee is achieving the impact it wanted, including whether you are making best use of the resources available to you.

Most committee members have a strong sense that they are conducting scrutiny at least in part on behalf of the public. But if engagement with the public is important to you don’t assume that it will happen automatically. We heard that committees need to find innovative ways to engage the public at all stages of their inquiries. This can include appropriate use of the media which is also useful for putting pressure on government. But use the media with caution – those we spoke to were highly critical of those committee members who were seen to be raising their own profile rather than publicising an issue.

The role of select committee member is only one of the many hats an MP will wear during their time in Westminster. How they approach the job is a matter for them. But the collective wisdom captured in the Institute’s new pamphlet is offered in a spirit of helping them make the most of this vital role.