If a parliamentary committee is to be effective in considering draft laws, monitoring government activities or engaging the citizens, it must rely on a team of parliamentary staff dedicated to such work. This group of personnel, often referred to as a committee secretariat, performs a number of functions.
First, staff of a committee plays an administrative role. If public consultations are to be conducted, there are numerous logistical issues that must be considered, from booking trips and rooms to organizing meetings. As comments are received staff must tabulate and record submissions for the committee members. Staff must also record proceedings of the meetings of a committee.
Many committees have legal advisors who provide procedural and legal advice to the committee chairperson and members. This can include determining the authority of the committee to take a specific action. It can also mean resolving disputes about procedure amongst members of the committee. Finally, it can also mean providing advice on wording of an amendment to a draft law, based on the decisions of the committee.
Committees also require subject-specific support from staff. Where a committee has the resources, it may hire full-time staff with an expert knowledge on a given subject to provide ongoing support to the committee. Such support can be in the form of informal discussions during or between committee meetings. It may also include more formal briefings as the committee considers a specific issue.
Where a parliament lacks resources it may “rent” such services instead of hiring full-time staff to provide support. Renting support may include the engagement of civil society organizations or community based groups to organize field visits or public meetings. It may include the provision of legal advice by private sector or public interest lawyers, either for a fee or pro bono. Where a subject-specific expert cannot be hired full-time, the committee can hold public consultations to allow subject experts to provide inputs or the committee can hire one or more experts as short-term consultants to provide support to the committee for a finite period of time.
Committees are expected to consider complex legislation and to monitor complicated government activities. Yet MPs are generalists and cannot have a strong working knowledge of all topics that come before the committee for consideration. In order to function properly, committees require access to research and staff that have the ability to provide a strong knowledge with regard to a topic.
As noted above, research can come in the form of full-time staff assigned to a committee. It can also come from short-term consultants or external expertise that provides advice and support to the committee. Some parliaments provide a research division that provides support to all committees, instead of dedicated staff assigned to each committee. In some parliaments, funds are provided to parliamentary groups and they are in turn responsible for their own research capacity.
No matter the means by which research is conducted, there are various methods by which such research can be organized and presented. For example, many parliaments produce briefing books prior to a topic being considered by a committee. Such briefings include relevant legislation and government policies. It may also include media excerpts related to the topic and recent correspondence between government and the parliament or external actors, such as civil society organizations (CSOs).
Committees can request more formal and detailed research with regard to a topic, either before it commences its review or during a review. Such research can include a detailed review of relevant literature and academic papers on a topic. It may also include surveys or other means of obtaining quantitative data related to a topic.
Research can also include less formal and rapid responses to questions as they arise during deliberations. Such research may rely on the knowledge of the staff or expert or a simple web-based search.
The ultimate goal of research support for a committee is to provide a committee with access to knowledge that can allow the committee to have sufficient information to make an informed decision about the contents of a draft law or the efficacy of a government expenditure or activity.