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16 November 2020

288: Trial by select committee

Preparing properly to appear in front of a Select Committee should not be controversial. The potential implications of getting it wrong can be enormous for individuals and organisations. But still we see examples of sessions being badly handled. How can we avoid these mistakes?

The resignation of the Chairman of the Football Association, Greg Clarke, over his frankly outrageous comments and language provided a stark example of the dangers of not taking Select Committees seriously. I have no direct knowledge of whether Clarke was helped to prepare and how much training he was prepared to accept. On this occasion, it was not just his language but also the fact he behaved in a similar way at his last appearance. He didn’t seem to have learned by past mistakes.

Engagement in Select Committee inquiries offers good, proactive possibilities for public affairs engagement but some inquiries are more reputation threatening. Both scenarios need to be prepared for in their own ways.

Training has to be the cornerstone of any approach to Select Committee hearings taking into account the questions, responses, likely approach of the committee etc.

But there are wider questions that organisations need to ask themselves.

  • Evidence giver? – there can be decisions about who will appear in front of the Select Committee. You need to think about seniority certainly but expertise, who will react well under pressure, who will treat the committee with the respect it demands etc? Much of this can be addressed in training if the decision about the person involved is more limited;
  • What is your appointment process? – there are internal issues to think about as well. If an executive is likely to have to give evidence then is that properly reflected in the appointment specification and process? For many roles, appearing before a Select Committee should not come as a massive surprise;
  • Patterns of behaviour? – Clarke used offensive language in two Select Committee sessions, three years apart. There has to be a question about he used that at other points as well? Why did he feel comfortable using the language in this day and age as the head of an organisation with the profile of the FA? Did it happen in other meetings? If so, why wasn’t action taken? The culture of an organisation will come under scrutiny as a result. The resignation is not and should not be taken as a resolution of the situation. The existence of wider structural problems are being openly discussed;
  • The setting? – just because the session is being held remotely and the evidence is being given from home does not change the fundamental rules. Sadly, it seems that some can lapse into being a little too relaxed in the comfort of their own home. You can currently watch the session here and see what you think and the committee will provide a transcript as well.
  • Can you stand the scrutiny? – efforts need to be made in advance of any session to recognise weaknesses and address them. If they do, however, remain then think about owning up and explaining what you are doing to address them. In other words, holds yourselves to account first before the committee does.

A Select Committee session should be taken as a time for reflection but inside and out. Sadly, not all organisations think in this way. If not then the damage to reputations can be significant. There is also the very real prospect that the failure to deal with an issue gives the committee and, in turn, the government to force action on them. That may be exactly what is needed.

 

 

 

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