Staff Independence and Management
An effective parliament within a democratic system of government must be legally and financially autonomous, having the constitutional authority to set its own rules and access to the funding and resources required to meet its constitutional obligations. This is a critical international standard that must be met if a parliament is to be considered credible and independent.
But beyond having the power to set its own rules, a parliament must have a dedicated staff that fulfills its roles in a non-partisan manner. It is through the establishment of a parliamentary service or secretariat that the parliament can maintain its independence on a daily basis through various political challenges.
There are two principles that are key to the establishment of an independent parliamentary service that meets international standards. First, the service must be non-partisan. This means that the staff must be hired based on merit and not have affiliation to any political party or movement. Parliaments are dynamic institutions whose members change after each election. Some political parties gain seats and some lose seats, but no matter the numbers from any parliamentary group, it is critical that all those groups and all MPs have confidence that the staff of the parliament is unbiased in how they respond to their queries.
Without such confidence in the staff’s independence, the parliament will face many challenges, including legitimacy amongst those that are elected and their party members. To function as the national venue for dialogue and law making, a parliament must be the “people’s house” and, as such, the staff of the parliament must treat all representatives equally and with no partisan biases.
Second, a parliamentary service must be independent from the executive branch of government. This may a more subtle issue but one faced by many parliaments. It is not uncommon globally for the parliamentary service to be a part of the executive branch’s civil service, thus allowing the executive branch to decide by whom and when a post will be filled, taking this important decision out of the hands of the parliament. The obvious challenge with this situation is that the parliament cannot be de facto independent if its staff can be moved or removed by the executive branch with little or no input form the parliament, giving the executive the power to curtail or influence the work of the parliament.
But even if one removed the potential political conflict between the executive and the parliament, it is still a challenge in that the parliament must have complete control over the staff that works for the institution. If not, the staff will be divided in their loyalty and in their motivation to respond to the demands of the institution. Indeed, if a parliament is to be truly independent, it must have the capacity and authority to assign and direct the staff of the parliament.
Beyond their independence, parliamentary staff is managed by various methods. The primary structure utilized globally is for there to be a one person in charge of the administration of the parliament, known as a Secretary-General, Director-General or Clerk. This person is often times granted a senior civil service or junior minister equivalency to ensure a level of independence. Where the parliament is bicameral, there is usually one secretary-general per chamber.
Under the head of the parliamentary service, the staff are often divided into units or departments that relate to the core functions of the parliament, such as research, committees, international relations, finance, etc. Each of these departments will have a director.
To assist with the management of a parliament, there is a growing trend towards strategic development plans. These plans start with a needs assessment to determine what is working and what is not within the parliament and then identify the steps and resources required to address required reforms. Within this process, staff are usually organized or re-organized to reflect the plan.
On a day-to-day basis, if a parliament is to operate efficiently, there is a requirement for Administrative Procedures. These are detailed policies and job descriptions that spell out by whom, when and how various routine activities will be conducted, thus allowing for consistency and trust in the work of the parliamentary service.