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Sarah Chaytor, Siobhan Morris & Olivia Stevenson - UCL Public Policy

17 October 2019, 10:05 UTC Share

Five ways to increase diversity of voice and make academic-policy engagement more equitable

For those of us working in academic-policy engagement, consideration of how to ensure a diversity of expertise in engaging with public policy is increasingly pressing. The recent House of Commons Liaison Committee inquiry into the effectiveness and influence of the select committee system inquiry (to which UPEN submitted evidence) provided a timely opportunity to reflect on the responsibility of both parliament and knowledge brokers to increase diversity in academic-policy interactions.

Given select committees’ key scrutiny role within the UK’s parliamentary system, there is a clear imperative for them to access diversity of expertise in order to represent the widest possible range of views, mitigate against bias, and fulfil their role.

However, as the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) has highlighted, whilst being “heavily dependent” on receiving formal evidence, “select committees do not receive ‘written evidence’ from a balanced cross-section of potential providers”. Other research also suggests that the current pool of witnesses to select committees does not reflect the UK population. The most recent statistics published by the Liaison Committee report into witness gender diversity highlights the continued under-representation of women amongst select committee witnesses – 33% of total witnesses and 37% of discretionary witnesses.

The growing awareness of the importance of ‘evidence-informed policymaking’ requires a similar focus on the (often structural) barriers to ensuring a diversity of individuals and expertise in academic-policy engagement. We need concerted effort to overcome the ‘usual suspects’ problem – where a small number of experienced academics (predominantly middle-aged white men) dominate select committee evidence and other engagement with parliament and public policy more broadly.

UCL Public Policy’s evidence to the inquiry emphasised the importance and urgency of increasing witness diversity, which we see as one important element in taking steps toward creating greater equity within academic-policy engagement more broadly. A recent report by UCL and the Resolution Foundation exploring inequalities emphasised that change in society can only be achieved by changing who designs policy – we believe it is just as important to change who scrutinises policy.

Select committees should be at the forefront of driving improvements both in respect of stakeholders and witness representation, the types of evidence they engage with, and the selection of inquiry topics. As the Liaison Committee inquiry noted, “the impact that committees have is crucially dependent on the information and evidence that they have access to. We must continue to widen and diversify the range of voices we hear from […] The wider the range of voices we hear, the more effective and influential our findings are likely to be.”

Recognising that representation must go beyond tokenism, and therefore be built through subject selection, communication, openness to new approaches and diverse voices, UCL Public Policy has proposed 5 actions for achieving greater equity within the evidence system:

1. Parliament must ensure that efforts to draw knowledge from a diverse pool of individuals go beyond tokenistic representation. We endorse the Liaison Committee’s suggestion that witness panels of three or more people should include at least one woman as a first step towards greater gender balance, and proposals to establish a gender quota for select committee witnesses should also be considered. This should extend to other protected characteristics (e.g. age, disability, and race).

2. All select committees should seek to routinely monitor and increase the diversity of the expertise with which they engage, including academic expertise, in terms of gender, ethnicity, career stage, geographical location and social background of witnesses and advisers. In the case of advisers, committees could consider more open application processes which would include anonymised applications to mitigate against unconscious bias.

3. Select committees could consider developing their own ‘Areas of Evidence Interest’, similar to Government departments’ Areas of Research Interest. These could act as a signal to academic communities as to likely broad areas of select committee interest and knowledge needs, and form the basis for discussions with UKRI about funding schemes.

4. Select Committees should consider hosting policy fellows. Fellowships schemes are well regarded in many parts of government and parliament as they provide an evidence pipeline and valuable skills enhancement for researchers. Fellows could be embedded alongside staff to provide additional advice on inquiries and build on the role of specialist advisers.

5. Committees should actively consider how to develop skills and confidence amongst academics and researchers in engaging with parliament. Recognising that not all academics have the confidence to proactively offer advice to committees we also encourage select committees to work with universities and others – including POST’s knowledge exchange team and Operation Black Vote – to consider enlisting those with previous experience as peer mentors and co-developing training on engaging with select committees. Training should take account of structural constraints and take care not place the burden on the individual.

It is very encouraging to see that the Liaison Committee’s report and recommendations begin to address these issues, particularly the ideas of fellowship schemes and ‘areas of interest’. For our part, we are conscious of our responsibility to support the widest pool of researchers to engage with select committees and work collaboratively with select committees to support them to achieve a more equitable system.

Sarah Chaytor is Director of Research Strategy & Policy and Joint Chief of Staff in the Office of the Vice-Provost for Research at UCL.

Siobhan Morris leads UCL’s Grand Challenge of Justice and Equality , working with academics and external partners to facilitate research initiatives and foster joint activities.

Olivia Stevenson is Head of UCL Public Policy and a cofounder of the UPEN, working with academics and policy professionals to build networks and deliver policy engagement agendas.

The content in this blog is based on UCL Public Policy’s evidence submitted to the House of Commons Liaison Committee: The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system inquiry and the UCL and Resolution Foundation report, Structurally Unsound. Exploring inequalities: igniting research to better inform UK policy

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