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Knowledge Exchange Lead, Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru
Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) are lists of policy issues or questions that can be used by parliamentary committees to invite research evidence for decision making. They are designed to build dialogue between researchers and policymakers, providing a new mechanism to broaden the research evidence submitted to parliamentary committees and the expertise available to them.
In this blog, Hannah Johnson (Knowledge Exchange Lead, Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru) discusses how the use of ARIs has helped to encourage diversity in the evidence submitted to the Senedd committees, encouraging new perspectives to inform scrutiny and law-making.
This work has been developed in collaboration with CAPE policy fellow, Rob Davies. This is Rob’s second CAPE fellowship, and it builds on his previous experiences of developing ARIs with UK Parliament Select Committees.
The evidence used by Members of the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) and committees to make laws and oversee Welsh Government actions comes from many places. Individuals’ stories fit together with those of frontline services staff, and advocacy groups and businesses share insights alongside academic experts and public officials.
A diversity of contributions representing different demographic groups, geographic locations, sectors, disciplines, or other perspectives helps committees to understand problems from different angles and recommend effective solutions. These voices together form a rich mosaic of evidence that creates a multi-faceted view of a particular policy issue or law.
“If you build a reputation for what you say having substance to it, of having reliable and credible evidence as well as powerful stories, then people will be more inclined to listen to you.”
Former MP quoted in Institute for Government research on the use of evidence in parliament and government
However, making sure that this knowledge pool is as diverse as possible can sometimes be a challenge. Senedd committees’ evidence diversity monitoring project indicated that some sectors and groups are less likely than others to contribute to committees’ work. Similarly, Professor Diana Stirbu’s review of the effectiveness of Senedd committees reinforced the need to reach out ‘beyond the usual suspects’.
Finding new ways to engage the research community in the Senedd’s work
Last year, two pioneer committees (the Health and Social Care Committee and the Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee) launched the Senedd’s first Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) as a way to improve committees’ engagement with the research community and diversify the evidence they receive. ARIs are lists of policy issues or questions which invite research evidence on specific topics of interest to the committee. These do not replace targeted calls for evidence, but instead provide another route to gather research evidence to support scrutiny.
The Senedd project aimed to identify medium- to long-term areas of interest to Members and committees that may not be on the immediate agenda, fill gaps in evidence and knowledge, and open the door for new and diverse sources of evidence and expertise to feed into the scrutiny process.
New voices contributing to committees’ work
The ARIs have now been open for more than six months, and have received nearly 90 responses from researchers in 27 universities across the UK. Strikingly, 62% of these respondents had never previously engaged with the Senedd. In contrast, initial data from the Senedd’s committee evidence diversity monitoring data indicated that the majority of people giving evidence through traditional mechanisms had done so before.
The ARIs also gathered information about 56 pieces of existing research relevant to the ARI topics, and details of 55 pieces of future research (due to be published in 2023 and 2024). 159 scrutiny questions were suggested too.
Feedback from officials was positive, with a clear desire to retain the mechanism as a tool in the committees’ scrutiny toolbox to support their work:
“ARIs offer the potential to identify new academic voices that could inform and shape potential Committee activity, and to raise the Committee’s profile with academics working in relevant fields.” ”
Senedd committee official
Researchers and universities also supported the use of ARIs as an informal, low effort way for researchers to highlight their research evidence and expertise to parliamentary committees.
While ARIs are not a magic bullet, they have proven themselves to be an effective way to engage new audiences with parliamentary work and enhance scrutiny. They have now been used in the UK and Welsh parliaments, and are being continued by both as a tool in their parliamentary committee scrutiny.
Success in these development have also led to the ESRC agreeing to provide funding to enhance the Senedd’s future knowledge exchange activities.
This work has been developed in collaboration with CAPE policy fellow, Rob Davies as part of his second CAPE fellowship. In his first CAPE fellowship in the House of Commons Committee Office Scrutiny Unit, Rob worked with Select Committees on developing ARIs and considering how to develop more systematic structures of cooperation between parliament and research institutions.
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