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Journal ArticleDOI

Who Gives Evidence to Parliamentary Committees? A Comparative Investigation of Parliamentary Committees and their Constituencies

22 May 2015-The Journal of Legislative Studies (Routledge)-Vol. 21, Iss: 3, pp 408-427

AbstractThis article focuses on the interaction between parliamentary committees and external actors. How is the interaction organised, and how does it influence which interests are voiced? The authors show that institutional variation in procedures for calling witnesses and variation in committee agendas influence both the composition of actors and the concentration of evidence. By composition of actors, they refer to the set of different actor types involved. By evidence concentration, they refer to the extent to which evidence is provided by a relatively small share of active actors. The study is based on a new data set of all contacts between parliamentary committees and external actors in one year across three countries: the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands. Interestingly, the findings show that procedures of invitation rather than open calls increase the diversity of actor composition and decrease the concentration of actor evidence. This, however, comes at a cost, since the overall volume of con...

Summary (6 min read)

Introduction

  • Yet representation is no less important between elections, and most political systems have established institutions to facilitate interaction between civil society and the state.
  • The authors examine how differences in committee procedures for taking evidence influence actor composition and evidence concentration.
  • The authors lay the ground for further explanatory and comparative research in the area.

WHO GIVES EVIDENCE TO PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES? 409

  • The authors further compare the institutional effects across national parliaments to increase the generalisability of the results.
  • The authors findings indicate that different instruments of access for involving an external stakeholder as well as different types of committee agenda do in fact influence both the composition and concentration of external actor evidence to parliamentary committees.
  • Most importantly, the authors show how exclusive procedures for external actor involvement where evidence is invited lead to engagement of traditionally less politically active actors and to a situation with less chance of evidence being concentrated in the hands of only a few actors.

How Procedures Influence Interaction between Committees and External Actors

  • The literature offers little guidance of what to expect when it comes to explaining variation in the composition and concentration of external actor evidence to parliamentary committees.
  • Most country comparative studies have been based on the common knowledge that overall state–society relations may explain differences in the inclusion of external actors (for a dicusssion of these differences see, for example, Eising, 2007; Rasmussen, 2015).
  • Political reformists would also emphasise that variation in institutions within a given political system (such as parliamentary institutions) matters.
  • The results of these efforts are not clear, however, since the same ‘usual suspects’ are still the dominant players giving evidence to the committees (Cairney, Halpin, & Jordan, 2009; Halpin, MacLeod, & McLaverty, 2012).
  • Also, the British select committees have been evaluated based on their ability to make the political process less remote and more accessible to citizens (Hindmoor et al., 2009, p. 73).

Preferences of the Actors

  • Before the authors identify institutional factors that might explain variation in the composition and concentration of evidence from external actors they need to lay out their assumptions regarding all the actors involved in evidence giving.
  • On the one side of the interaction the authors find the committee members.
  • The authors assume that MPs consider representation and information quality (Jensen, 2012) when selecting external actors from whom to take evidence.

410 THE JOURNAL OF LEGISLATIVE STUDIES

  • Even though committee members may favour information supporting their policy position they have an interest in being as fully informed as possible when developing arguments or making a final decision about their position.
  • This distinction is critical to Salisbury’s (1984) classification of lobbying actors into ‘institutions’, that is, individual corporations, state and local governments, universities, and so on, and ‘interest groups’, defined as membership organisations.
  • By contrast, institutions have interests of their own and can make claims independently of their staff, workers or affiliates.
  • Members support a group because they expect it to lobby and express the policy position of the group.

WHO GIVES EVIDENCE TO PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES? 411

  • To examine actor concentration, the authors compare the relationship between groups and the amount of evidence they submit to examine whether there is a non-proportional relationship between groups and evidence giving.
  • The term access instrument refers to the procedures for involving external actors in committee work.
  • Open access is therefore determined solely by the lobbying preferences of the actors themselves.
  • Based on their assumption that interest groups have multiple incentives for being active, they are likely to dominate contacts to committees when the procedure of access is open.

412 THE JOURNAL OF LEGISLATIVE STUDIES

  • Closed access can make room for less professional actors.
  • A closed agenda is one where the committee itself cannot set the agenda.
  • Majority governments are able to propose and vote bills through parliament, and even minority governments are typically able to enact bills they propose to parliament owing to interparty negotiations with parties in opposition prior to parliamentary debates in committees (Christiansen & Pedersen, 2014; Strøm, 1990).
  • Institutions are assumed to lobby primarily to influence public policy, and they may participate in committee work on bills to defend or improve gains won in the administrative negotiations (Baumgartner, Berry, Hojnacki, Kimball, & Leech, 2009, p. 164; Richardson & Jordan, 1979).

WHO GIVES EVIDENCE TO PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES? 413

  • All of the affected actors are likely to participate in committee discussions of the relevant bill because it will have concrete consequences for them and this is the last opportunity to influence it.
  • By contrast, when the agenda is open more actors will engage to try to influence the agenda.
  • As the consequences of a potential change of the political agenda are unclear, it is likely that participation is not divided equally between them, but that only professional lobbyists will keep regular and close contacts with parliamentary committees during such relatively open discussions.
  • There will be lower evidence concentration on closed agendas related to bills than on open agendas.

Research Design and Empirical Background

  • The authors test their expectations in three national parliaments (Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK).
  • The authors include multiple countries to see how robust their findings are across different national settings.
  • The work of Danish committees varies on the agenda dimension with the distinction between legislative, closed agendas and non-legislative, open agendas, but not on the access dimension, since all access is open.
  • To meet their second criterion the authors include the UK, which is different from Denmark as well as the Netherlands in many relevant ways.

414 THE JOURNAL OF LEGISLATIVE STUDIES

  • Taken together, the three countries share important differences and similarities in how external actors participate in the work of parliamentary committees.
  • These are described in more detail below, with a particular focus on describing the types of contact used by external actors on the key dimensions of agenda and access.

The British Case

  • The British case is represented by Westminster.
  • These committees consider policy issues, scrutinise the work and expenditure of the government, and examine proposals for primary and secondary legislation (Norton, 1998).
  • Hence for these committees the agenda is closed.
  • In addition, the authors can distinguish between two types of evidence: oral and written.
  • In select committees, members most often choose the witnesses themselves, whereas witnesses for bill committees are essentially selected by the whips, with the committee members ratifying this selection.

The Danish Case

  • In Denmark the procedures for taking evidence are very different and much less formalised.
  • The standing committees align closely with government departments and their members are appointed by the parliamentary party groups in such a way that the committee composition resembles the balance of power between the parties in parliament.
  • The work of the committees is divided into two parts called general and specific.
  • In the specific part committees scrutinise parliamentary decisions – primarily bills – while in the general part they engage in a range of other business (for instance, asking questions not related to bills to the minister.

WHO GIVES EVIDENCE TO PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES? 415

  • While British select committees typically call for evidence on specific issues, the contact with external actors in the Danish committees is primarily driven by external actors calling attention to specific problems or issues they care about.
  • Evidence during both the general and specific parts can be oral as well as written.
  • In both cases the procedures are very informal.
  • Here, you need to be accepted before you can show up – but almost everybody is – and you will have 15 minutes, unless the committee decides otherwise, to make your claim.

The Dutch Case

  • Dutch standing committees also generally resemble the departmental structure of the government and have their members appointed by the party groups.
  • In preparation for processing a proposed new bill, the committee may start an investigation, consisting of rounds of written/oral questions to the individual proposing the bill.
  • The committee can decide to invite external actors to hearings, roundtables, or conversations .
  • These meetings are all examples of closed access since participation relies on prior invitation.
  • On their own initiative actors can also submit a petition to the parliamentary committee.

Comparative Matrix

  • From the description of the procedures in these three countries there is evidence of contacts that relate to the key dimensions of agenda and access.
  • Evidence from different committees constitutes examples of open and closed agendas, respectively.
  • Hence, in both the Dutch and British cases the authors can distinguish between evidence that did and did not require a pre-invitation.
  • The two dimensions and the ordering of the different procedures on these dimensions are illustrated in Table 1.
  • For illustrative purpose the authors show how the Dutch contacts could be divided according to both dimensions even though they are not able to do this separation based on the data available.

Data Set

  • To explore the composition and concentration of evidence to parliamentary committees by external actors the authors have compiled a data set consisting of all evidence given to parliamentary committees in one year in the three countries.
  • In Denmark, data were collected from the parliamentary website (www.ft. dk), which stores and publishes4 all documents sent to committees.
  • To describe the composition of different actor types, the authors coded actor types according to the scheme developed in the INTERARENA project (www. interarena.dk) and distinguished between 12 actor types (see Table 2).
  • The argument was that in order to save time committees would: (1) only take evidence from main stakeholders among the population of interest groups; and (2) prioritise obtaining information from a varied set of actors representing a broad range of societal interests, including those of civil.

418 THE JOURNAL OF LEGISLATIVE STUDIES

  • As mentioned already, no evidence is invited in Denmark and therefore Denmark is excluded from this analysis.
  • The authors find a similar pattern across the two countries.
  • In the UK, institutions, interest groups and other actors constitute approximately one-third each when access is open.

WHO GIVES EVIDENCE TO PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES? 419

  • Experts constitute a far larger share of the actors when they are specifically invited by the committee rather than when access is open.
  • It is remarkable that these differences in the composition of uninvited and invited actors that participate are stable across the two countries despite their different state–society structures.
  • The vertical axis shows the share of evidence.

420 THE JOURNAL OF LEGISLATIVE STUDIES

  • Here 24 per cent of all invited actors account for 50 per cent of the invited evidence whereas only 13 per cent of all actors without prior invitation account for 50 per cent of this type of evidence.
  • Similar to the Dutch case, nine out of the 12 most active non-invited actors are organisations while only five of the 13 most often invited actors are organisations.
  • In both countries, the total number of active groups is larger when access is open, but the evidence provided is distributed more equally among the actors when access is closed.
  • The second factor the authors consider in their comparative matrix is the type of agenda.

WHO GIVES EVIDENCE TO PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES? 421

  • The authors argued that closed agendas increase the dominance of interest groups since institutions will generally find it less attractive to invest resources in battles already won by the government.
  • Further, the authors argued that closed agendas are likely to decrease the concentration of evidence submitted because open agendas will attract resourceful and professional lobbyists who are likely to be very active in the political system.
  • To separate closed and open agendas, the authors distinguish between written evidence to select and bill committees, respectively, in the UK, and in Denmark they compare letters filed under the so-called ‘specific part’ of committee agendas with letters filed under the so-called ‘general part’.
  • Table 3 supports their hypothesis regarding the composition of actors.

422 THE JOURNAL OF LEGISLATIVE STUDIES

  • This is particularly the case for Denmark.
  • Hence, as expected, the agenda of parliamentary committees does influence the type of actors willing to invest time and resources in contacting the committees and voicing their interests.
  • In both countries the dotted line for legislative evidence is placed closer to the baseline than the full line.
  • The most active actors giving written evidence to select committees are all organisations (the Local Government Association, British Medical Association, National Farmers’ Union and the Public and Commercial Services Union) whereas the top score Figure 2: The Impact of Agenda Procedures for Evidence Concentration in Denmark and the United Kingdom.

WHO GIVES EVIDENCE TO PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES? 423

  • In Denmark the difference is smaller and the lines are closer together.
  • Here 20 per cent of the actors account for 50 per cent of the non-legislative evidence whereas 23 per cent account for 50 per cent of the legislative evidence.
  • The three actors providing most written evidence to the non-legislative agenda of Danish committees are two usual suspects, the Disabled Peoples’ Organisations Denmark and Danish Regions, plus the Free Consumers of Electricity, which is not a major political player in Danish politics but uses the open agenda and access to engage in campaigning (Pedersen, 2014).
  • In total, fewer actors were active in relation to the closed, legislative agendas of the committees, but the evidence was more dispersed among these actors than in the case of the open, non-legislative agenda.

Conclusion

  • This article set out to address a gap in the literature on legislative committees.
  • At the same time, the authors aspired to work towards the development of a clearer set of expectations about the composition and concentration of populations of organised interest engaging with legislative committees, from a comparative perspective.
  • In line with their expectations, the authors saw that the composition and concentration of external actor evidence depend on the institutional procedures for taking evidence within countries.
  • First, the authors highlighted the importance of whether access required invitation and whether the agenda related to legislative or non-legislative activities.
  • As expected, procedures of open access where prior invitation was not required in order to submit evidence increased the dominance of interest groups over other actors and it intensified the tendency for evidence giving to be concentrated in the hands of a few actors.

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The Journal of Legislative
Studies
Publication details, including instructions for authors
and subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fjls20
Who Gives Evidence to
Parliamentary Committees? A
Comparative Investigation of
Parliamentary Committees and
their Constituencies
Helene Helboe Pedersen, Darren Halpin & Anne
Rasmussen
Published online: 22 May 2015.
To cite this article: Helene Helboe Pedersen, Darren Halpin & Anne Rasmussen (2015)
Who Gives Evidence to Parliamentary Committees? A Comparative Investigation of
Parliamentary Committees and their Constituencies, The Journal of Legislative Studies,
21:3, 408-427, DOI: 10.1080/13572334.2015.1042292
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13572334.2015.1042292
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Downloaded by [Australian National University] at 20:45 08 September 2015

Who Gives Evidence to Parliamentary
Committees? A Comparative Investigation of
Parliamentary Committees and their
Constituencies
HELENE HELBOE PEDERSEN
*
, DARREN HALPIN
and ANNE RASMUSSEN
This article focuses on the interaction between parliamentary committees and external
actors. How is the interaction organised, and how does it influence which interests are
voiced? The authors show that institutional variation in procedures for calling witnesses
and variation in committee agendas influence both the composition of actors and the con-
centration of evidence. By composition of actors, they refer to the set of different actor
types involved. By evidence concentration, they refer to the extent to which evidence is
provided by a relatively small share of active actors. The study is based on a new data
set of all contacts between parliamentary committees and external actors in one year
across three countries: the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands. Interestingly,
the findings show that procedures of invitation rather than open calls increase the diversity
of actor composition and decrease the concentration of actor evidence. This, however,
comes at a cost, since the overall volume of contacts is reduced.
Keywords: interest groups; institutions; parliamentary committees; representation;
comparative study.
Introduction
Representation is crucial for democracy to work (Pitkin, 1967). The link between
the represented and their represen tatives is established most directly through
elections. Yet representation is no less important between elections, and most
political systems have established institutions to facilitate interaction between
civil society and the state. While it is generally deemed to be normatively prefer-
able that these institutions be as accessible to the public as possible, in this article
we show that when designing institutions we face a trade-off. Inclusive insti-
tutions do indeed increase the amount of evidence given, but in contrast to
general assumptions more exclusive institutions may actually pave the way for
interaction between society and state that is less dominated by strong societal
players and mobilises less politically minded actors. We use parliamentary com-
mittees as an example of an institution meant to facilitate representation.
Parliamentary committees serve many functions. They improv e legislative
efficiency through a division of labour, they create opportunity for log-rolling
The Journal of Legislative Studies, 2015
Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 408427, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13572334.2015.1042292
# 2015 Taylor & Francis
Downloaded by [Australian National University] at 20:45 08 September 2015

and agreement formation, and they contribute to building up expertise by allow-
ing members of parliament (MPs) to specialise and by taking evidence from
external actors. For some, parliamentary committees are seen as the major inno-
vative institutional change in parliaments since the 1960s, and today it is difficult
to find a parliament without committees as a focal point of policymaking and par-
liamentary activity in general (Aldons, 1985; Arter, 2006; Hindmoor, Larkin, &
Kennon, 2009; Krehbiel, 1992; Lijphart, 1999; Longley & Davidson, 1998;
Mattson & Strøm, 2004; Shepsle & Weingast, 1987). Although powers vary,
committees have the potential not only to ease the legislative process but also
to function as an important linkage between state and civil society (Hough,
2012). This helps to secure representation and conduct oversight of the executive.
As a transmission belt, parliament provides legitimacy for government actions in
parliamentary systems (Norton, 2001, pp. 17 18).
As one might expect, many have examined the influence of parliamentary
committees (see, for example, Cairney, 2006; Damgaard & Jensen, 2006;
Mattson & Strøm, 2004; Monk, 2009). In this way, most studies focus on the
direct legislative impact of these committees whereas other aspects of their
work are given less attention (but see Benton & Russell, 2013; Halpin, Baxter,
& MacLeod, 2012; Norton, 2002). In particular, little scholarly attention has
been given to the way committees engage with external actors and obtain infor-
mation (for important exceptions, see Halpin, MacLeod, & McLaverty, 2012;
Norton, 1999; Rommetvedt, 1998): ‘The relationship between parliament and
citizens is one of the least studied areas in legislative studies yet this is a
crucial dimension in understanding parliaments and the role they play in our pol-
itical systems’ (Leston-Bandeira, 2012, p. 265).
In this article we work towards establishing firmer theoretical expectations for
explaining patterns of contact between committees and civil society. We examine
how differences in committee procedures for taking evidence influence actor
composition and evidence concentration. Actor composition refers to the set of
different actor types involved in parliamentary committee work: we distinguish
among institutions, interest groups, experts and individuals. Evidence concen-
tration refers to the relationship between groups and the volume of evidence
they submit. Evidence is concentrated if a high share of evidence is provided
by a small share of actors (for example, if only 3 per cent of the actors provide
25 per cent of the evidence). We argue that different instruments of access for
involving external stakeholders and different types of committee agenda affect
the composition as well as the concentration of the evidence provided to parlia-
mentary committees. In this way, we lay the ground for further explanatory and
comparative research in the area.
To test the causal effects of the different institutional procedures on actor
composition and evidence concentration we include data on external actor invol-
vement in committee work in Denmark, the Netherlands and the United
Kingdom
1
using a new unique data set with more than 20,000 external actor con-
tacts. We test the impact of institutional variation within each national parliament
WHO GIVES EVIDENCE TO PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES? 409
Downloaded by [Australian National University] at 20:45 08 September 2015

keeping constant other factors, such as party system, overall statesociety
relations such as corporatism and pluralism, and the political agenda, because
all these factors may also potentially influence contact patterns. We further
compare the institutional effects across national parliaments to increase the gen-
eralisability of the results.
Our findings indicate that different instruments of access for involving an
external stakeholder as well as different types of committee agenda do in fact
influence both the composition and concentration of external actor evidence to
parliamentary committees. Most importantly, we show how exclusive procedures
for external actor involvement where evidence is invited lead to engagement of
traditionally less politically active actors and to a situation with less chance of
evidence being concentrated in the hands of only a few actors.
How Procedures Influence Interaction between Committees and External
Actors
The literature offers little guidance of what to expect when it comes to explaining
variation in the composition and concentration of external actor evidence to par-
liamentary committees. Most country comparative studies have been based on the
common knowledge that overall state society relations may explain differences
in the inclusion of external actors (for a dicusssion of these differences see, for
example, Eising, 2007; Rasmussen, 2015). However, political reformists would
also emphasise that variation in institutions within a given political system
(such as parliamentary institutions) matters. Greater attention has been devoted
to institutions since the 1990s (Norton, 2001, p. 16) and most scholars agree
that the institutional design has consequences for the policy process as well as
the policy outcomes (see, for example, Shepsle & Weingast, 1987). The new
committees of the Scottish parliament, for instanc e, were designed to enhance
the role of civil society in the legislative process and to engage the Scottish
people actively and especially traditionally excluded groups in the demo-
cratic process. The results of these efforts are not clear, however, since the
same ‘usual suspects’ are still the dominant players giving evidence to the com-
mittees (Cairney, Halpin, & Jordan, 2009; Halpin, MacLeod, & McLaverty,
2012). Also, the British select committees have been evaluated based on their
ability to make the political process less remote and more accessible to citizens
(Hindmoor et al., 2009, p. 73).
Preferences of the Actors
Before we identify institutional factors that might explain variation in the com-
position and concentration of evidence from external actors we need to lay out
our assumptions regarding all the actors involved in evidence giving. On the
one side of the interaction we find the committee members. We assume that
MPs consider representation and information quality (Jensen, 2012) when select-
ing external actors from whom to take evidence.
410
THE JOURNAL OF LEGISLATIVE STUDIES
Downloaded by [Australian National University] at 20:45 08 September 2015

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  • ...Greater attention has been devoted to institutions since the 1990s (Norton, 2001, p. 16) and most scholars agree that the institutional design has consequences for the policy process as well as the policy outcomes (see, for example, Shepsle & Weingast, 1987)....

    [...]

  • ...…it is difficult to find a parliament without committees as a focal point of policymaking and parliamentary activity in general (Aldons, 1985; Arter, 2006; Hindmoor, Larkin, & Kennon, 2009; Krehbiel, 1992; Lijphart, 1999; Longley & Davidson, 1998; Mattson & Strøm, 2004; Shepsle & Weingast, 1987)....

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