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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Assisting Committees in the Canadian Parliament

Hugh A. Finsten, Director General,Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada


The government's control over the parliamentary agenda is all encompassing when it holds a majority of seats in Parliament. Parliamentary committees have no independent existence; they are creatures of their chamber. In the House of Commons, the permanent committees (known as standing committees) are empowered to examine the program and policy objectives, legislation, expenditure plans, organization and operation of the government departments assigned to them. Committees can conduct enquiries on their own initiative and even obtain a response from the government to their reports. However, the government does not have to adopt the recommendations; it does not have to give serious consideration to the reports. Although committees can review departmental spending and government legislation, the government will ensure that the majority on the committee rejects any adverse action. On the other hand, committees serve important fact finding and consensus building functions when they hold cross country hearings, and can generate public support concerning government policies. They are most effective in influencing government action when they study issues in which the department has not yet developed a position or in proposing alternatives on issues in which government initiative is stalled.

Research Branch Assistance to Committees

Committee work represents a significant portion of the overall workload undertaken by the Research Branch. Approximately 40 percent of the time worked by its 60 professional staff is related to assisting committees. The Branch currently assists 32 standing committees plus 12 subcommittees of the two Houses, as well as special committees. Only a few committees in the two Houses are not assisted. Officers serve committees either individually or in multidisciplinary teams of two or three, and may also collaborate with consultants engaged by a committee.

The chair is elected by the committee and therefore has the responsibility for directing the staff. It is an informal arrangement; staff continues to handle other Branch assignments (for individual members, associations, publications) while assisting committees. Staff responds to individual information requests from all members of the committee; anything more substantial would have to be approved by the chair or could be handled by another officer not attached to the particular committee. If any research request could lead to a conflict between the staff's role in assisting the committee as a whole and its assistance to an individual member of the committee, the committee chair would have to authorize the research; or another officer in the Branch, not assisting the particular committee, could undertake it. Staff has to develop a good working relationship with the committee chair while retaining credibility with all committee members.

Committee members look to the Library staff as overall advisers. The staff is a source of unbiased information unlike departmental officials, interest groups and lobbyists. Research Branch staff members play a full and active role assisting committees. They participate at meetings of the committee's directing body (the steering committee) by offering suggestions concerning subjects to study, the process of the study, and witnesses to be heard. They arrange and participate in committee briefings, draft reports, draw up press releases, and brief members on the committee's report. They pull together the evidence and present it in an organized, objective manner. They are in frequent communication with departmental and private sector officials and interest groups, representing the committee in their discussions. Staff must demonstrate the skills and abilities required in consulting and senior policy advisory positions in the public service. They maintain and apply the training and the substantive knowledge reflected in their academic credentials, and keep abreast of developments within assigned policy fields. They must address complex issues in clear and accessible prose adapted to the needs of committee members. Their work is frequently undertaken under severe time constraints, with simultaneous assignments from several different requesters.

Committee members have high expectations concerning the role and skills of staff. Members sometimes expect their small staff to match departmental expertise. However, committee staff is unlikely to equal the full range of expertise of such officials who specialize in a particular subject. In the final analysis, committee staff is knowledgeable and has expertise in many areas, but has to deal with an extensive range of issues and responsibilities.

The New Fiscal Reality

Parliament is implementing severe budget cutbacks in its spending for the next several years. Although staff cuts have not been made at the Library, a program review is underway to determine how the organization can achieve a reduction of approximately $350,000 in 1995 96 from a budget already depleted by several years of cuts. Further reductions are forecast in future years.

Budget cuts affect the Library directly through a reduction to its own budget, yet program reductions in other institutions to meet their new fiscal situation have resulted in increased work for the Library. Parliamentary funding has been available in the past to complement the services of the Research Branch particularly when committees are engaged in major policy studies. The House of Commons has now reduced the global amount of money available to committees from $3.4 million to $2 million. This amount includes contracts for outside consultants. With budgets now reduced, committees have to be selective in using these funds for outside assistance and, as a result, are depending even more on the resources of the Research Branch. Without additional staff, the Research Branch is forced to stretch its limited resources even further, which affects the overall assistance it can provide committees. As a result the Branch, which in the past has tried to accommodate every request, may have to say "no" more often.

The Nonpartisan Imperative

How relevant will a nonpartisan research unit be in an increasingly partisan political environment? The current Parliament has been of particular interest with regard to this topic. The two new opposition parties are regionally based. The Official Opposition is dedicated to the separation of one province (Quebec) from Canada. The Reform Party, with almost all Members from the western provinces, intends to make government and Parliament more responsive to constituents, and is cautious of the parliamentary bureaucracy. How do they react to the information they receive from bureaucrats in the federal Parliament? As a nonpartisan service committed to assisting all Members, the professional responsibilities of the Research Branch are clear. Branch statistics indicate that services are more popular now than in previous Parliaments. Total work assignments increased more than 30 percent last fiscal year. Total requests from the two opposition parties equalled the number from government members, although they hold 36 percent of the seats compared to the government's 60 percent. In fact, the Reform Party, with 18 percent of the seats, accounts for 31 percent of the requests.

Problems concerning perceived partisanship can arise. Despite the Library's reputation, it has not always survived unscathed from highly politicized situations on committees. For example, in the last Parliament, the Conservative government introduced major new tax legislation, the Goods and Services Tax, which was unpopular in the country. The bill passed the House of Commons, where the Conservatives had a majority, but was held up in the Senate, which was initially controlled by the Opposition Liberals. Library staff assisted the Senate committee studying the bill. The chair was a Liberal as were the majority of members on the committee. Certain instructions given by the chair to the staff concerning the report were strongly resented by government members on the committee. Eventually, the bill passed the Senate and became law. However, when the Conservatives obtained a majority and took control of the committee, the Library was asked to change its staff serving the committee.

Staff can become involved in politically sensitive situations when a committee is studying departmental spending estimates or government legislation. Do they prepare material critical of the department and government? Instructions from the chair in this regard may reflect the relationship between him or her and the minister as well as the autonomy of the committee. The opposition will be interested in critical information, in material that will embarrass the government. Staff members must be sensitive to this situation in providing material, so they are not perceived as favouring any member or party, or pursuing their own agenda, any of which could damage their credibility. There is always a delicate balance and staff must be fully aware of all the issues.

Permanent Staff for Committees

The subject of permanent staff for committees is raised from time to time particularly when Members return from Washington where they are understandably overwhelmed by the extensive resources available to congressional committees. An influential 1985 report of a special House committee on parliamentary reform recommended budgets for committees to purchase research services; a 1993 report of the House Liaison Committee (consisting of all House chairpersons) recommended dedicated staff funded by the House.

Large committee staff would seem difficult to justify in a parliamentary system dominated by the government, unlike the situation in the United States, where Congress has significant independent power. A pool of professionals specialized in different disciplines from which committees can draw assistance seems a more appropriate option. When committees are inactive such as during parliamentary recesses and elections, staff can be assigned to other work. Also in a bicameral legislature, staff can follow a bill or issue from one chamber to the next, a most efficient and practical use of resources. In any event, the present climate of fiscal restraint likely precludes action on such recommendations for the immediate future.

Complementary Sources of Assistance

With the increased demand on services and the variety of tasks staff are expected to perform, there is simply insufficient time to develop in depth knowledge in all areas studied by committees. Considering that one of the overriding criteria affecting current government activity is cost cutting, options must be considered for handling increasing workloads without incurring more costs. The limited funding still available from committee budgets can be used to hire specialized expertise on a temporary basis for a particular enquiry. In this way the experience and knowledge of the committee staff can be supplemented on an as needed basis by technical expertise. Although cutbacks in committee budgets limit the funds available, they may be sufficient if effectively targeted and used to complement the Library's committee staff. Research Branch officers are well suited to advise concerning timing and the expertise required when bringing in technical consultants.

Government departments are a source of technical expertise. There are a number of recent examples of departmental officials assisting committees. Whether they are prepared to assist depends on how they view committee involvement on their "turf." Although the very suggestion that the executive branch of government would provide staff to parliamentary committees would seem unacceptable to strict constructionists who insist on keeping legislative and executive branches separate, this should not be ruled out provided conditions for such an arrangement are clearly established. Such an arrangement could be mutually beneficial. It would appropriate additional resources and technical expertise to committees, while serving the interests of departments to participate in committee deliberations. Departmental officials normally monitor committee meetings in any event. A delicate balance is involved, however. Using departmental staff runs the risk of actual or perceived conflicts of interest which in the final analysis can only weaken the authority of Parliament and its committees. Such an arrangement would not be appropriate in all situations. Enquiries involving the department directly including the annual review of departmental estimates or other oversight functions would not be appropriate situations to involve departmental staff. Moreover, in situations where an opposition party takes a position distinctly adversarial to the government's, it would unlikely agree to such an arrangement.

Working Efficiently

The Library of Parliament provides a centralized service to the two Houses of Parliament. The Research Branch uses the same staff to handle the variety of services it offers to individual Members, committees and parliamentary associations; the staff also prepares publications and participates in seminars. The Library has already developed efficiencies in terms of centralization. The Research Branch's word processing, publishing, clerical, data base management, and messenger services are centralized, and the Branch has a small management team of six persons.

In the new fiscal environment, committee staff have to review their methods of working to focus their efforts on value added work. Consideration needs to be given to delegating work, setting priorities, and considering other ways of increasing efficiency. Where possible, non value added activities should be identified and delegated to support staff trained to assist the professionals as required. Research assistants and library reference staff are available to find information and reference material, check facts and handle nontechnical aspects of the officer's workload. Full use should be made of automation. All officers have the latest computers in their offices and access to other equipment in a central location. Scanners are already reducing time spent on preparing summaries of briefs and testimony. Support staff are trained in the preparation of tables, charts, and graphs using spreadsheet and graphics software. Finalizing texts and producing professional products can be left to the skilled text processing operators. The on line parliamentary network provides direct electronic access to parliamentary publications and other material. Staff also have on line access to the Library's catalogue and its CD ROM tower. Similar access to commercial data bases and the Internet is being implemented.


At the core of the effectiveness of parliamentary committees is the role of staff. To carry out their mandates, committees require knowledgeable and informed professionals experienced in the operations of Parliament and committee work. However, the present climate of fiscal restraint is likely to be a dominant factor for the foreseeable future. Coupled with a continually increasing workload, the ability of staff to effectively carry out their functions is being threatened. By using complementary resources including targeted outside contracting and departmental expertise, by undertaking value added functions and delegating other roles to support staff, and by exploiting new technologies to their fullest, staff can maximize their efficiency. A cost effective, centralized, multi purpose service such as that provided by Research Branch professionals is a most appropriate model for assisting committees. It is particularly well suited to a period of downsizing and government restructuring. Parliament must recognize the value of Library staff, and Members and committees must support their services if such units are to remain effective in serving Parliament in the current fiscal environment.