In Deliberative Accountability in Parliamentary Committees, Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey examines the content, conduct and motivations underpinning select committee scrutiny in the UK Parliament. Grounded in methodological rigour, this excellent book offers wide-ranging and nuanced insights into processes of parliamentary accountability, finds Marc Geddes.
Deliberative Accountability in Parliamentary Committees. Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey. Oxford University Press. 2022.
Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey’s book, Deliberative Accountability in Parliamentary Committees, focuses on examining the content, conduct and motivations underpinning select committee hearings of the UK Parliament (put simply, ‘the what, how and why’ of committee scrutiny). Taking economic policy as its central case study, this is a timely book given not only the big economic challenges facing the UK (and beyond) but also the ever-present questions of trust in and satisfaction with political elites and institutions. Deliberative Accountability is an important intervention across different disciplines – political science, psychology, linguistics, communication scholarship – owing to the significant conceptual, empirical and methodological contributions of Schonhardt-Bailey.
Turning first to the conceptual contribution, Schonhardt-Bailey appraises and theorises two key concepts in political science: deliberation and accountability. She productively examines the relationship between both concepts to suggest that her key term, ‘deliberative accountability’, ‘should be seen as a unique term that stands in distinction from either deliberation or accountability’ (9). The concept refers to the quality of the interplay between questioners and witnesses in select committees in a specific adversarial context that requires witnesses to be held to account.
Schonhardt-Bailey goes on to identify a tension here: deliberation avoids the adversarialism that accountability can sometimes invite. She uses the basis of her concept to build a framework for analysis to assess ‘good’ deliberative accountability through respect (it is expected that participants build productive relationships with one another); partisanship (the extent to which participants pursue partisan objectives at the expense of ideal deliberative goals); and reciprocity (how far participants talk to rather than past each other). In the first chapter alone, Schonhardt-Bailey adds considerable theoretical depth and conceptual nuance relevant for parliamentary, deliberative and accountability studies.
Image Credit: ‘HLIO_econ-aff-cmte_0137’ by UK Parliament licensed under CC BY NC ND 2.0
The conceptual contribution is matched by the highest levels of methodological rigour. Schonhardt-Bailey’s approach is three-pronged. First, she uses the latest advances in quantitative text analysis to offer an analysis of the content of questions and answers in committee hearings. Second, she examines the conduct of hearings through experimental methods that analyse nonverbal behaviour. And third, she interviews key participants to understand the motivations and interpretations of questioners and witnesses (with very senior access). While I must admit that, as a qualitative scholar, I wasn’t able to follow all the nuances of her quantitative methods, the combination of methods ensured that this is a rigorous and compelling study.
I was particularly impressed with Schonhardt-Bailey’s analysis of nonverbal behaviour in Chapter Three. This chapter clearly pushes against existing research and offers a remarkable advance for methodological and empirical debates. The chapter as a whole made for fascinating reading, finding that there are clear correlations about nonverbal cues, especially the dynamics between questioner and witness, which affect people’s judgements about the quality of that deliberation (see especially pages 138-39).
Taking the conceptual and methodological advances together means that Deliberative Accountability promises to give an exciting account of deliberative accountability by committees. In this way, the book makes a clear empirical contribution. While these insights are relevant for a variety of different fields, I want to highlight two that are especially important for my field of parliamentary studies.
Overall, this book makes a clear contribution to studies of parliaments. It demonstrates the differences between two key sites of the book: the Treasury Select Committee in the House of Commons and the Economic Affairs Committee in the House of Lords. Schonhardt-Bailey finds that the quality of deliberation is arguably higher in the House of Lords, but the quality of accountability is higher in the House of Commons. Importantly, in adopting a systems approach, it is the combination of different roles by the two houses that ensures quality overall. These insights are given further nuance when compared with the US Congress – the author’s previous area of research.
More specifically, the book also makes a clear and relevant contribution to studies of how economic policy is debated in public. Here, Schonhardt-Bailey is able to demonstrate that deliberative accountability varies by policy question/issue, with fiscal policy arguably poorer than financial or monetary policy. The explanation for this is that fiscal policy – questions about tax and spend – is most clearly about the distribution of resources in society, and therefore poses fundamental questions about the nature of power in British politics. While the same might be true of the other two areas, they are less direct in their content. This raises wider questions about the quality – and even purpose – of accountability in Parliament.
While the findings may not shock, their nuance and depth across the chapters of the book ensure that it is full of interesting insights – not only for political scientists but also for psychology, linguistics, communication scholars and beyond.
Indeed, they prompt yet further questions. Let me dwell on two. First, I wondered about the distinctiveness of economic policy, the timing of the study and the participants involved. How might the deliberative nature of findings vary by a type of committee chair? How might economic policy compare to other issues, such as migration (highly topical, but also adversarial and emotive) or climate change (again, topical, but less adversarial and more technocratic)?
Second, I wondered about the distinctive influence of gender, class and ethnicity on the findings. Although this was not Schonhardt-Bailey’s focus, I want to push this a little further given we know that parliaments privilege particular types of identity, as shown through the highly revealing quote given by one interviewee on page 201 in which the interviewee was patronised, ignored and felt isolated due to her working-class accent and gender. We know that economic policy is dominated by men from particular kinds of background; does this affect how deliberative accountability is pursued or assessed? We also know, from qualitative research, the importance of the body, performativity and space. The breadth and depth of scholarship on gender and political institutions suggests that there is much more that could be probed in this area. These questions are not critiques of the book – rather, they suggest that Schonhardt-Bailey has opened further avenues for research that others (or the author herself) may take up in the future.
I must admit that I started reading with some trepidation. As somebody that has also published a book about select committees, would Schonhardt-Bailey come to very different conclusions and challenge my research? Luckily, this did not happen. The opposite, in fact. I see much overlap in our conclusions, such as the importance of everyday interactions on scrutiny (as shown in both Chapters Two and Three through Schonhardt-Bailey’s quantitative analysis of verbal and nonverbal behaviour compared to my ethnographic research on practices) or how motivations, beliefs and values affect accountability (as shown in Chapter Four; Schonhardt-Bailey’s discussion of the ‘maverick’ sounds similar to my ‘lone wolf’). I hope that the focus on processes of accountability – studied from a diversity of methods – continues.
Overall, this is an excellent book. It is wide-ranging both in its content and in its contributions. I am very excited to see what research Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey turns to next.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.