Working as a Research Fellow in Parliament

Our PhD student Alison Lacey was on a 13-week placement at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). POST offers Research Fellowships to approximately 30 PhD students a year from a range of science disciplines, and Alison’s was funded by the British Psychological Society. As part of her fellowship, Alison was seconded to the Health and Social Care Committee. Her job involved supporting the Expert Panel to evaluate the Government’s commitments to maternity services in England. The Panel’s report was finally published last week, and Alison has now had time to reflect on her experience of working in Parliament:

It has been a privilege working with the Expert Panel on their assessment of the Government’s progress against its maternity services commitments. It’s strange to think that the first-ever CQC-style rating for a UK government department came to life on my computer a few weeks ago.

I started my 13-week POST Research Fellowship placement a lifetime ago in April, seconded to work with the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s Expert Panel with another Fellow, Florence Young from Cambridge University. While most POST Fellowships follow a predictable and well-tested structure, we knew quite early on that this was going to be different. In the first week, whenever we mentioned we were working with the Expert Panel at our induction meetings, colleagues would give a sympathetic head tilt and “Ah, you’re going to be busy!” Probably a good thing that we didn’t know then quite how true this would be.

The Expert Panel was fabulous to work with, despite the intimidating number of honorifics and titles: Sirs and Dames all over the place! The Panel is Chaired by Prof Dame Jane Dacre, and we had private fortnightly meetings with her, which were often master classes in the art of charm and diplomacy. We were supervised by Previn Desai, Head of the Expert Panel Secretariat, who gave us as much autonomy as possible, but kept us tethered with regular informal meetings and a review of his worry list.

One of the most exciting parts of the process was that no one knew what the end product would look like – or even what it would say. The task was to distil evidence from multiple sources into four main CQC-style ratings which, given the complexity of the subject, was not always easy to achieve. 

During the process, Florence and I analysed the initial formal response from the Department of Health and Social Care and identified important follow-up questions for meetings with Department and NHSEI officials. To supplement this, we developed a qualitative framework to assess written submissions from key stakeholders (which we will be writing up!), arranged and facilitated roundtable events with midwives and obstetricians, and attended and analysed a focus group transcript with women from East African backgrounds who had experienced recent poor maternity care. The focus group was a very important reminder of how a system can only be as good as the most vulnerable people it serves, and the testimony from the women was extremely powerful.

We were also able to attend and contribute to other Committee work, including attending evidence sessions for the current review of inpatient care for Autistic people and people with Learning Disabilities and that session with Dominic Cummings for the ‘Lessons learnt from COVID’ inquiry.

However, timescales were tight and delays to some formal responses meant that the final write-up of the Expert Panel report was a race against time. One evening, I was finalising edits until almost midnight after being told Jeremy Hunt wanted ‘eyes on’ at 9 am the following morning. Not someone I had ever anticipated would be marking my homework!

But we got there, and I think the report is something to be proud of. We structured the report to highlight the central importance of safe staffing: not just numbers but skill and effective deployment with a proper focus on staff retention and wellbeing. Health inequalities were a persistent concern throughout, and we decided to include this as a separate chapter to highlight the work that needs to be done to address the unacceptable discrepancy in outcomes for Black and Asian women, as well as women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

It has been an incredible experience, and I will miss the buzz of policy work and the wonderful people I have been working with, especially Florence and Previn. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back?

When she is not working in Parliament, Alison Lacey is interested in the development of social and emotional competence in young children. Her doctoral thesis, supervised by Dr. Kathryn Lester and Prof Robin Banerjee, investigates how playing with other young children may influence social skills learning and how parental supervisory practices may impact the quality and range of children’s play. Alison is also a contributing author of the PlayFirstUK policy recommendation document calling the UK government to prioritise children’s access as part of any lockdown exit plan.

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