Metrics for 'Global Britain' - a select committee proposal

3 Aug 2018

If the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published regular 'Metrics for Global Britain' it could attach clear indicators to an otherwise politicised term, enhancing the committee's scrutiny work and providing hooks for boosting its public and media profile. In evidence to the committee published in July, we explained how.

Dr Brigid Fowler, Senior Researcher, Hansard Society
Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Dr Brigid Fowler

Dr Brigid Fowler
Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Brigid joined the Hansard Society in December 2016 to lead its work on Parliament and Brexit, as well as contribute to its ongoing research on the legislative process, parliamentary procedure and scrutiny, and public political engagement. From 2007 to 2014 she was a Committee Specialist for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, where she led on the Committee’s EU-related work. In the first six months of 2016 she was on the research team of Britain Stronger in Europe. She has also worked as assistant to an MEP in Brussels and as an analyst and researcher on EU and European affairs in the private sector and at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London.

After completing BA and MPhil degrees at the University of Oxford in PPE and European Politics, respectively, she spent the first part of her career focusing on the politics of post-communist transition and EU accession in Central Europe, and completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham on the case of Hungary. She has given media comment, appeared before select committees and published several journal articles and book contributions.

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The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published an initial short report into ‘Global Britain’ in mid-March 2018.

The report did not follow a conventional full-scale inquiry, with terms of reference and a call for written evidence, but rather a testy - although ultimately successful - exchange with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to try to extract written evidence, and the taking of oral evidence from a limited number of witnesses.

In its report, the Committee concluded that “it remains unclear what the government believes the UK should do with (its) resources and assets in the post-Brexit environment, and how the UK should exercise leadership on the most urgent and complex issues facing the international system.” The Committee implied that ‘Global Britain’ was a slogan not yet backed by substance; it said that the FCO’s written evidence constituted a list, not a strategy; and it identified a risk that ‘Global Britain’ might come “to be perceived as a superficial branding exercise”, which would “undermine UK interests by damaging our reputation overseas and eroding support for a global outlook here at home.”

The Committee has already seen the government start to implement one of its recommendations. In mid-June, the government published on a single webpage a collection of speeches, documents and announcements “that set out the government’s vision for Global Britain”. Otherwise, in its response to the Committee’s report, published in mid-June, the government largely rejected the Committee’s views, although it welcomed its ongoing scrutiny.

When it published its report, the Committee already announced that it would follow it up with “a long-term piece of work to explore in detail the Government’s ambitions and objectives for Global Britain”, via a series of reports. The Committee published a call for written submissions at this point, including on “Metrics against which the success of ‘Global Britain’ can be assessed”.

The Committee launched the first of its sub-inquiries, into the FCO’s skills needs for ‘Global Britain’, in mid-June.

In response to the call for written evidence, the Hansard Society made a submission proposing that the Committee should undertake the collection and regular publication of a set of ‘Metrics for Global Britain’.

We welcomed the Committee’s decision to undertake ongoing investigations into aspects of ‘Global Britain’, as an example of the kind of long-term scrutiny work that can prove to be among the most effective select committee activities, but which select committee-watchers often find is lacking. We argued that “by committing to the repeated publication of a set of factual indicators, the Committee would show that it is serious about evidence-based scrutiny work”, as well as create a regular and well-tested data-based ‘hook’ to attract media and public attention.

In our submission, we reviewed ways in which the Committee might generate ‘Global Britain’ metrics and see them published. We concluded that the best option would be for the Foreign Affairs Committee to take ownership of the project itself, but to involve specialist staff of other relevant select committees and the House of Commons Library, perhaps with Liaison Committee endorsement of the exercise.

In our submission, we suggested that, as matters stand, the idea of ‘Global Britain’ risks being instrumentalised and politicised - attached to phenomena and random news items that are happening anyway and that people simply think are a ‘good thing’. (We also pointed out that the assumption that ‘Global Britain’ is a ‘good thing’, or seen by the public as such, is sometimes precisely that - an assumption.) We suggested that attaching the concept of ‘Global Britain’ to a set of indicators would de-politicise it, and allow greater government accountability and a more substantive policy debate. We argued that a large part of the value of the exercise would come from the Committee, as a cross-party body, agreeing through a transparent process on a set of data which it saw as constituting reasonable indicators of the extent to which the UK is more or less ‘global’, without necessarily endorsing the idea that the UK should become ‘more global’ according to each and every one of them.

There are, of course, well-known risks associated with the collection of numerical data as a tool for policy assessment. A focus on metrics can divert resources, create perverse incentives and disadvantage phenomena that are not susceptible to measurement. We acknowledged that many elements of a ‘Global Britain’ policy might fall into this last category. We also said that “the Committee should make clear to the government that it would not regard an improved performance on ‘Global Britain’ indicators as any substitute for policy development and delivery.”

We further noted that, if it went ahead with the data collection, the Committee would have to decide whether to limit itself to phenomena which are directly under government control (such as the number of UK embassies and other overseas posts), which would be in line with select committees’ prime responsibility to hold government to account; or, alternatively, take a more expansive view of ‘Global Britain’ encompassing private and commercial decisions (and thus measure, for example, the size and geographical spread of the UK diaspora, or the number of overseas destinations served from UK airports). In the annex to our submission, suggesting specific possible ‘Global Britain’ indicators for the Committee’s consideration, we took the latter approach.


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