John Sturrock: MSPs can learn to ask the right questions, the right way

CONCERNS about the questioning techniques of a Scottish Parliament committee raises the more general issue of how such bodies undertake their functions of inquiry, investigation and scrutiny.

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

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

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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. This necessitates preparation: what is the objective of the session, of the line of questions and of this particular question? How can this best be achieved?

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

This requires discipline – and a willingness to accept that political point-scoring or demonstration of one's own knowledge of a subject might need to be subordinated. Then, the committee can probe more deeply into the issues.

In Scottish Parliament committees in the past, in the parliaments in Jersey and Guernsey, and more recently in the London Assembly, members who have refined their questioning have found they can make a difference.

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.

• John Sturrock is chief executive of Core Solutions Group