Written by Adam Bertscher, PhD candidate in the Tobacco Control Research Group
During my final PhD year, I took part in a four-month internship with the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC). It was an eye-opening experience and gave me invaluable insights into the inner workings of the most central democratic institution where policy is crafted and shaped.
My internship aligned nicely with my PhD research, which I am doing as part of the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG). Using systems thinking, my research aims to understand how unhealthy commodities industries (UCIs), such as producers of tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy foods, attempt to influence the development of public health policy.
In my research I try to understand how this influence is enabled by other aspects of society, such as norms, the economy, and the role of science. It also explores how to prevent or mitigate such industry influence, for example, by regulating interactions with undisclosed corporate interests, reforming political financing, and tightening the grip on lobbying activities.
My internship was a thrilling experience that allowed me to make sense of my theoretical academic work within the practical realities of democratic governance. During my time with PACAC, I was given the position of an inquiry manager, where I was tasked with overseeing various inquiries: one was on the fairness, transparency, and efficacy of the public appointments process overseen by the Commissioner of Public Appointments.
Another was on the Information Commissioner's role in the enforcement and oversight of the Freedom of Information Act. My responsibilities included conducting background research and drafting briefings that provided lines of questioning for the committee's inquiries. I was also lucky enough to be involved in other inquires, such as contributing to scrutinising the Cabinet Office, particularly around their Disinformation Unit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I had the opportunity to shadow various offices situated in the House of Commons, including the Journal Office, Hansard, and the Public Bills Committee. One of my highlights was being present while Rishi Sunak was questioned in Prime Minister's Questions and by the Liaison Committee.
PACAC's remit to improve public administration holds relevance to my PhD research around what we can do to address UCI influence on public health policy. The internship offered me a first-hand exploration into the policymaking process and the ways in which public administration, often described as the art and science of governing, can enhance this intricate process. Public administration aims to create frameworks for better, fairer, and more balanced policies, ensuring transparency, accountability, and an effective civil service which facilitates this.
My experience at the House of Commons has not only shaped my understanding of public administration but has also given me a tangible roadmap for how to move forward with thinking about ways we can protect public health policy from industry influence. As I return to the TCRG equipped with these insights, I hope to contribute meaningfully to their ongoing work on safeguarding public health in the face of powerful corporate interests.