Public submissions to Parliamentary Inquiries are routine for many not-for-profit (NFP) organisations. These Inquiries provide an opportunity for NFPs to contribute to public life and to advocate for the communities they work with, however the impact of submissions and the efficacy of Inquiry processes are largely unknown. In this post, Jacqueline Williams examines these important issues and provides recommendations for improving interactions between NFPs and Parliamentary Inquiries.
Public Participation in a Healthy Democracy
For many Australians, the parliament in Canberra seems a world away. Yet, the health of our democracy depends on the participation of even society’s most marginalized. Parliament, in its own formal fashion, seeks to promote public engagement by inviting submissions to Parliamentary Inquiries. A number of Not-For-Profits (NFPs) make submissions to these Inquiries on behalf of those who are unable to do so themselves. A recent survey I conducted, assessing the effectiveness of such submissions in realising public participation, yields encouraging results.
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Parliamentary Inquires are set up to canvass public opinion about the best course of action for a particular policy. Anyone from the public can make a submission to such Inquiries, informing the Committee as to their opinion of the particular policy. The Committee takes into account submissions by the public, investigates further evidence, and formulates conclusions and recommendations into a Report presented to Parliament.
Scholars in this field contend that public participation in the political sphere is a core tenant to democracy. Bishop and Davis state the Parliament must be able to consult with the public more frequently and more broadly than just those issues taken to elections every three years. One way in which this might be achieved is through submissions to Parliamentary Inquiries, which are said to be one of the most important means by which the public can engage with Parliament on a regular basis.
Previous research has measured the effectiveness of public participation with reference to three criteria: whether it is open (fair), flexible, and informative to the public. Firstly, continued participation in the submission process requires it to be a feasible task, open to the wider public, and perceived to have an impact. Secondly, flexibility in how evidence is obtained increases engagement by the wider public. Finally, public participation is enhanced when the process serves not only to inform parliament, but also to educate those making submissions about the parliamentary process.
The present research I conducted by whilst interning at the St Vincent de Paul National Council, canvassed the views of large NFPs who submit to Federal Parliamentary Inquiries on behalf of disadvantaged Australians, advocating for issues on social justice. These national charities varied in size, from medium to large, and are generally based in Canberra. The aim was to gauge the perceived effectiveness of the submission process, according to those who engage with it, as measured by the three aforementioned criteria.
By and large, the results suggest that submission-writing by NFPs to Parliamentary Inquiries is an effective means for enhancing and realising public participation in the democratic process. However, a number of issues were raised that lead to several recommendations.
1) All respondents stated that time spent on submission writing varied from hours, to days, to weeks, to months, perhaps attesting to the complexity of some submissions.
Recommendation: Drawing upon the factors that respondents identified determined time spent on submissions, means to expedite that process could be explored. For example, 45% of respondents indicated that ‘familiarity with the topic’ as a determining factor for time spent on submission writing. NFPs could be assisted with this factor through opportunities to utilise past research conducted by similar entities. This might involve, for example, developing a shared database of past research between NFPs.
2) The most common means by which respondents had given evidence was through formal hearings (82%). Some respondents (18%) indicated that formal hearings can be intimidating, especially if there is a lack of expertise in this type of proceeding.
Recommendation: Explore whether less formal means of giving evidence, such as public hearings, would increase participation in this process.
3) The results show that the majority (64%) of organisations find out about Inquiries by private invitation from Parliament.
Recommendation: Investigate the means by which Inquiries are advertised to the broader public, especially concerning the creation of invitation lists, with a view to broadening this process.
4) Although the majority of respondents (64%) felt that their submissions were having an impact, a number of respondents (18%) felt that this did not occur all the time, whilst others were unsure about the procedure the Committee took in tabling the Report.
Recommendation: Investigate the perceived transparency of the parliamentary process, including how submissions are dealt with in writing the final Report, and how those Reports impact upon parliamentary decision-making.
A healthy democracy rests on meaningful participation in the parliamentary process by a wide cross-section of the public. Results from this survey suggest that submission writing by NFPs to Parliamentary Inquiries provides a genuine means by which these entities can participate in this process. Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. These recommendations could be taken up by Parliamentary Committees to improve the consultative process, and furthermore by NFPs, in order to increase collaboration in the sector.
To read the full report, click here.
Jacqueline Williams is a fifth year LLB/BA student at the Australian National University, who recently undertook an internship with St Vincent de Paul Society National Council.
 See, for example, The Australian Collaboration, Democracy in Australia – Citizen participation in Democracy (July 2013) The Australian Collaboration <http://www.australiancollaboration.com.au/pdf/Democracy/Citizen-engagement.pdf>. Brenton Holmes, ‘Citizens’ engagement in policymaking and the design of public services’ (Research Paper No 1, Parliamentary Library, Politics and Public Administration Section, 2011).
 Patrick Bishop, and Glyn Davis. "Mapping public participation in policy choices." Australian journal of public administration 61.1 (2002): 14-29.
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