Government outreach: 7 tips for submitting parliamentary evidence

Andrew Dorman

The Houses of Parliament, Westminster, UK. Image Credit: Maurice via Flickr.

The UK Parliament’s various select committees regularly put out calls for evidence to be submitted to them. For scholars, this provides a golden opportunity to engage directly with the practitioner community and hopefully contribute to the policy debates within government.

Evidence can be submitted in different forms. Written evidence can be submitted by anyone in response to a particular committee’s call for evidence. Oral evidence is where an individual, or more often 2 or 3 individuals, are invited to appear before the committee to answer questions related to a specific inquiry.

In what follows, I have collected the key things to consider when engaging with Parliament through these forms of evidence, and at the end you’ll also find some examples from recent International Affairs contributors.

1) Be proactive

Calls for evidence are not widely circulated and there is limited engagement with social media and other platforms. To find out what calls are being made individuals need to identify which committees might be interested in their work and regularly check the committee’s website. Some of the key committees you may wish to keep an eye on are:

  1. The Foreign Affairs Committee
  2. The International Trade Committee
  3. The Exiting the EU Committee
  4. The Defence Committee
  5. The International Development Committee
  6. The Environmental Audit Committee

2) Watch the clock

The calls for submissions often give weeks rather than months to respond. Having decided to look at a particular subject the committee members want to get going on the study due to the parliamentary calendar. As a result, the calls invariably seem to clash with the busiest part of term and it is easy to let an opportunity go by. As tempting as that may seem at the time, here is no guarantee that the subject will be revisited, so decide whether to give evidence early and put aside the time.

3) Quality matters

Evidence can be, and is, supplied by anyone with no quality check. For some inquiries, only a few submissions are received while for others the submissions may number more than a hundred. The challenge is for your evidence to rise above the competition. Here academics should have an advantage. Ensure the evidence you submit has appropriate data to support it and builds on recently published research. This should position your work above more generalist submissions, which often read merely as opinions.

4) Understand the audience

Like many of us, the MPs serving on committees are short of time and their membership of a particular committee does not guarantee any prior expertise in that area. That said, many have extensive experience, especially if they have been on the committee for some time, and will have strong views. Tailor your evidence so that it meets their needs. In particular, write in a style that is appropriate to the average. As a profession, we have our own language that can be unintelligible to those on the outside. A good trick here is to get a non-academic friend to have a read of your draft and get them to tell you what they think it says — sometimes the results can be a little disconcerting. Consider having a summary paragraph at the start with the key points as a way to entice the committee members into reading further.

5) Written and oral evidence isn’t linked

It might seem logical to assume that committees will evaluate the written evidence and then ask that the authors who provided the most significant evidence then appear before the committee. In reality this isn’t the case and some of those giving oral evidence will not have provided written evidence beforehand. Committees often look to the London-based think-tanks or their special advisors for recommendations. The result is that many of those giving oral evidence are of similar backgrounds. The only way to counter this is through quality written evidence. Anyone can provide a written submission, even academics based outside of the UK, and often these perspectives are valued highly.

6) Be honest

If you are asked to give oral evidence, answer what you can but do not be afraid to say ‘I can find out and provide an additional written submission’ or that this is outside your field. Bluffing can often be found out and will undermine your credibility. Try also to keep the answers as short as possible. The committee will invariably have more questions than they have time for and chairs will invariably seek to cut down long-winded answers. Note that hearings are often broadcast live now and available for posterity — what you say will become the official record. Also, be warned that committees can be temporarily suspended for 20 minutes or so while a vote is cast in parliament by the members. When this happens it is worth noting what you were about to say so that you are not thrown when the committee starts again.

7) Check the final report

If you are concerned with the impact of your research, check the final report of the committee to see whether your evidence has been cited. The committee is unlikely to tell you so unless you follow this up your impact might be missed.

Recent examples from our authors

International Affairs prides itself on publishing policy-relevant academic research. Many of our authors have given evidence, or been cited, in parliamentary inquiries. Here are two examples:

Written evidence:

In December 2017 Lee Jones, Shahar Hameiri and Jinghan Zeng (all recent contributors to International Affairs) provided a written submission to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry into ‘China and the international rules-based system’. Read the submission here.

Oral evidence:

In March 2018 Rosemary Foot and Katherine Morton (also past International Affairs authors) appeared before the House of Lords International Relations Committee inquiry into ‘Foreign policy in changed world conditions’. Watch a recording of the session here.

Have you provided evidence to Parliament? If you have any more advice from your own experiences then please share in the Comments field below.

Andrew Dorman is Professor of International Security at King’s College, London, and Commissioning Editor of International Affairs.

Read more from our Editor’s Desk series here.

Find out more about publishing with International Affairs here.

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