One of the great challenges for a parliament is accessing resources that allow it to fulfill its functions of law making and oversight. The executive branch of the government has access to legions of professional staff, researchers and lawyers who specialize in numerous topics. From this group of functionaries, the government can produce discussions papers, conduct consultations and finalize new policies and laws. However, parliament, which must review these draft laws and must monitor the government’s activities, have few professional staff who can support the oversight of the government.
If a parliament is to be effective, parliamentary committees, parliamentary groups and individual MPs require access to professional staff who can provide information and subject-specific knowledge on any topic that could relate to the work of government, from the impact of droughts on agricultural subsidies to the implications of an increase in customs on new cars (and everything in between). Where the executive branch can rely on professionals in each ministry or department, the parliament has no such capacity.
There are a number of methods by which a parliament can receive the professional support it requires to review draft laws, consider the implications of funding cuts or review the impact of government policies. When issues arise (as they do on a daily basis with a parliament), what is critical is that MPs and committees have access to quick, sound and independent information that responds to their request.
The international best practice is to have a dedicated Parliamentary Research Unit that has the professional staff to answer the questions of MPs and committees as they arise. The unit may organize its work in different ways, but the key is to have well-educated, non-partisan permanent staff who are able to reply in a timely manner to the rapid demands of a parliament. Many such units have staff that is educated in economics, law, political science and other areas that are relevant to the work of government. It is common for the staff to be assigned to work with specific subjects or affiliated with one or more committees in the parliament, thus allowing for some specialization. In many parliaments, the research unit may be affiliated or directly connected to the parliamentary library.
An alternative to a research unit is to have researchers assigned to a parliamentary committee. In this system, each committee has one or more professional research staff that is assigned to support the work of that committee. This system is not seen as optimal, as the other work of the parliament may not have access to the research staff required to be effective.
It is common in relatively well-resourced parliaments to provide research capacity to parliamentary groups or individual MPs (or both). In this system, most of the research capacity upon which political parties and MPs rely will be hired directly by them, thus eliminating the challenge of building trust between staff and MPs. This system allows groups and MPs more autonomy in how in who is hired, their qualifications, and how their services are allocated.
A growing trend in the past ten years is to have a parliamentary institute to support the work of the parliament. These have become quite common in South and Southeast Asia. There are various reasons why a parliament may want to create an independent research arm that provides non-partisan, professional advice and information to MPs, parliamentary groups and committees. Some have been created because the standard research unit is burdened with short-term demands for information and there is a lack of detailed, long-term policy analysis. Others have been created because of a lack of trust and confidence in the parliamentary staff. For more information on parliamentary instutitutes, please click here.
An alternative to funding full time professional staff as researchers is to access such services on a short-term basis. This can be done in two ways - hiring consultants and experts or seeking input from civil society and academics through consultations.
If a parliament choses to hire a short-term expert, it will likely be related to the review of a draft law that is being considered or a report being developed by a parliamentary committee. The benefit of this approach is that the parliament can hire the specific expert it requires to address the exact topic under consideration, thus allowing for an efficient use of resources while obtaining the best expertise.
Where a parliament has very limited resources, it can seek free advice. As a parliamentary committee (or group or MP) consults the public with regard to a draft law or a government action, it should be inviting input from those that already work in the subject area of the law or action and should use the consultation process to extract the perspectives and knowledge of the experts. Such experts could be individual citizens who have experience in the area or could be a civil society organization or an academic who works in the field.
Almost all parliaments have some mix of all these methods of obtaining research and policy analysis. The key is to be as cost-effective at receiving the best advice possible and this can only be achieved once one has a good understanding of the political and economic context in which the parliament operates.
Information management and library
If information is key to an effective democracy than it is absolutely critical for an effective parliament. In almost every aspect of the work of the institution, access to timely and accurate information is important to ensure a productive and efficient decision-making process. Anyone associated with a parliament can recall an example of how committee meetings and plenary sessions grind to a halt because one or more parliamentary groups is either pressing for the release of information or, if it had the right information, would not hold up deliberations.
Parliament is also the creator of much information. The process by which the institution receives, gathers and disseminates this information is known as information management. And parliaments must consider both internal and external demands when considering the management of this information.
Internally, it is important that all MPs and parliamentary groups have access to information. From the simplest order paper or daily agenda to volumes of documents related to a committee investigation, a parliament must ensure this information is catalogued, filed and accessible in a timely manner. And it is critical all information be managed in a similar manner, as it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what piece of information may never be requested again or may become the centre of a future critical debate.
Such systems have traditionally included hard copies of documents and involved complex filing systems. It would also include the engagement of library, research and committee units to identify and categorize such information. More recently, electronic document management systems have been developed, allowing MPs and staff to access summaries or entire documents through an internal electronic system. These electronic systems have often been part of an intranet for internal use by staff and MPs.
One of the traditional tools of information management is a daily transcript of the plenary sessions of the parliament, known in Anglo-Saxon countries as Hansard or the Congressional Record. Many parliaments struggle to produce such a transcript in a timely manner (usually considered within 12-24 hours of the end of the sitting), but it is a critical document that allows for the clarification of the proceedings when there is a challenge or dispute between MPs or groups. More recently, with the use of ICT, parliaments have been able to produce electronic versions of the transcript and have even posted these online. For more information on parliamentary transcripts, please click here.
Externally, many people are interested in the work of the parliament. Some are seeking information related to a specific draft law or seeking an opportunity to advocate to MPs or a committee. Others monitor one or more aspects of the work of parliament and require information on a routine basis to ensure proper oversight. Still others may just want to learn more about the workings of the parliament.
A website is now the accepted portal to the information contained within a parliament. Citizens and stakeholders alike should be able to access as much information as possible through online sources. Of course this means parliaments must populate their online sites with the information. Ten to 15 years ago, many parliaments established simple websites that provided static and limited information about their work. The standard is now a website that is interactive, allowing citizens to provide feedback on the work of their MP, a committee or parliament in general.
As important is the ability of citizens to access a wide range of information. This may include draft laws being considered by the parliament, a report from a parliamentary committee or details of the annual budget of the parliament. By making this information available to the public the parliament is fulfilling its mandate of representation while promoting the principles of democracy and the role of parliament in that system.
More advanced parliaments are even providing live feeds or podcasts of plenary sittings and committee hearings. Others allow citizens to submit petitions online that are then accepted by the parliament for consideration.