Digital engagement is important for raising awareness of Committees’ work, but that overlooks its greater potential. Digital tools are increasingly allowing the public to contribute their experiences, knowledge and expertise to Select Committee inquiries.
Lowering the barrier-to-entry
The traditional method of contributing to inquiries is submitting written evidence. This requires a good knowledge of the inquiry process and the confidence to submit personal views, meaning that there is a high barrier-to-entry. Even online, this can be a formal and intimidating environment.
Online petitions and forums have a much lower barrier-to-entry: a couple of taps, an email address and a space to state your views. So, when we were seeking out the views of young people for the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into employment opportunities for young people, these digital tools offered a more effective method of engagement.
Starting with the petitions
Petitions offer the public a simple way of communicating their views to Parliament. We therefore sought out relevant existing petitions that had been submitted to petition.parliament.uk. This helped us locate small communities of people who had stated their interest in youth employment.
One of the petitions we used
We wanted to help these people to say more, and inform the committee's inquiry in the process.
Building up to a forum on parliament.uk
Once we'd found our potential participants, we created an online forum on parliament.uk. This was open for anyone to contribute to, but we used the petitions as a way of managing the flow of participants, and reaching out to those who had already reached out to us.
We planned the forum early in the inquiry process, just after it had been publicly announced. This gave the Committee plenty of time to gather and interpret the responses. By proactively managing the channels through which the forum is promoted, we can ensure a tighter control is maintained over both the number and type of responses.
The Committee suggested three questions to put to respondents:
1) Do you feel that the careers advice and guidance (including access to work experience) that you have received in school/college/university has been adequate to prepare you for employment? How could it be improved?
2) How could your experience of using Jobcentre Plus be improved? This might include the quality of advice that you were given via Jobcentre Plus, or how comfortable you felt accessing and using the services, for example.
3) The Government's 'National Living Wage' was introduced in April 2016, but is only available to workers over the age of 25. What effect do you feel this has had on your experiences of employment?
The forum also asked respondents to give their age, and status as a) employed, b) unemployed and looking for work, or c) unemployed and not looking for work at the moment.
The parliament.uk forum received 54 responses. This was a manageable number for the committee to process, and provided a broad range of viewpoints. It shows forums can be a middle way between petitions and written evidence. The lower barrier-to-entry widens the net compared to written evidence, but the extra element of participation over petitions leads to more in-depth responses.
Trends identified among the responses included a perceived lack of careers advice for secondary school students and a lack of flexibility in JobCentre Plus assessments. The responses also included a number of powerful personal experiences of today’s job market, including passionate opinions on issues such as the Government’s National Living Wage.
Stepping it up
This is an exciting and previously overlooked way of petitions influencing the scrutiny process. At the moment few petitions reach the 10,000 signatures required for a Government response or get debated in the House. However, if signatories contribute to a Select Committee inquiry, it forms a clear link between public participation and effective scrutiny.
The journey from petition to forum also marks a step-up in citizens' engagement with Parliament. Rather than just giving a binary response of support to one viewpoint, participants can offer their own nuanced view, respond to others and draw Parliament’s attention to new issues. Petition signatories are clearly interested in the work of Parliament, so encouraging them to go one step further and participate more actively is a key way of maintaining and fostering the relationship between Parliament and the public.
“I would like to have learned about employment law and employees rights, understanding a pay slip, tax returns, self employment… paying bills, money management… union information and job application assistance. I feel that without considerable help from my immediate family I would have struggled for the past five years attempting to navigate the working world.” – Sophie Hall
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