Policy Analysis and Research Capacity
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.