Asking the Right Questions

Some readers will have seen my piece in the Scotsman recently commenting on concerns expressed about the conduct of a Scottish Parliament committee when questioning those appearing before it on the subject of the Parliament's tax-raising powers.

This raises the more general issue of how committees undertake their functions of inquiry, investigation and scrutiny. I have had the privilege of working with a number of the parliaments and other representative bodies in these islands on this subject.

Like any other occupation, this work requires skill and competence. Eliciting information from those appearing before members of a scrutiny body is often an important part of its work. How this is done will have a crucial impact on the quality of evidence which is forthcoming - and upon the decision-making which follows.

To be effective, committee members need skills in questioning techniques. Like any other skills, these can be learned. Often, effective questioning does not come naturally, even for those experienced in public speaking.

As in any setting, the art of asking an effective open question for example, which focuses the issue and enables or compels the respondent to answer, requires practice and understanding of both the form and content - every word being carefully chosen for its task. This necessitates preparation: what is the objective of the session? Of the line of questions? Of this particular question? How can this best be achieved?

The simpler the question, the more focussed its direction, the greater the clarity of language used, the more likely that the questioner will get an answer which meets his or her purpose. And the better the use of limited time.

This requires discipline, of course. And a willingness to accept that political point-scoring or demonstration of one's own knowledge of a subject may need to be subordinated to the purpose of securing useful information which will assist the committee in its work. Then, the committee can probe more deeply into the issues about which the respondent is being asked. What lies under the surface? That takes us back to purpose: is the objective to make political capital - or to better inform the committee?

In Scottish Parliament committees over the years, in the parliaments in Jersey and Guernsey, and more recently in the London Assembly, members who have committed to refining their questioning techniques have found that they can make a real difference.

As has been pointed out, the Scottish Parliament aspires to do things differently from the Westminster model. Showing respect for respondents while being rigorous about the issues is possible with the requisite competence - and with a clear sense of the opportunity for more effective governance which this can bring.